In the PBS documentary The Released by Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, they follow five severely mentally ill men after they had been released from prison. In this case, severe mental illness was defined by requiring daily anti-psychotic medication to begin functioning in a stable way (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009). Following the deinstitutionalization of mental illness, those men are joined by over half of prisoners with serious mental illness to become a part of the largest exodus in our nation’s history. Nearly two-thirds of those prisoners were re-arrested in a little over a year, most for crimes that directly related to their mental illness (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009). This deinstitutionalization was meant to give them the same rights and freedoms as the rest of us, but failed to consider that one isn’t really free when struggling with mental health; a well-meaning policy, but it went too far.
After being released with only a bus ticket, seventy-five dollars, and two weeks’ worth of medication, these five men began to see how there was a better level of care while incarcerated than what they could receive in the community. Most were isolated from their support systems because of their past histories of violence, but this proved only to perpetuate further violence, as no one was there to guide these individuals in their transition back into their communities or even help them stay on their medications. After being re-incarcerated only 1 month following release, one of the men being documented said “I was going to stay on my meds. And they were working. So I got tired of taking them. I thought I was cured” (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009). This refers to the all too familiar “revolving door” concept, in which those with mental illness are too often incarcerated and stabilized, then set free unsupervised to ultimately stop taking their medication in the belief that they no longer need it (Edelman, 2017). This ends in mental relapse, increasing the likelihood of crime and re-incarceration. Proving this point, four of the five men followed in this documentary had been rearrested within the seven month filming period (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009).
This production went on to ask the questions, what happens to the mentally ill after they leave prison and why are they coming back at such shocking rates? Well to start, I said the revolving door concept was all too familiar because it is also a key function in the criminalization of the homeless population (Edelman, 2017). That vicious cycle is only different in its added priority of medication, to the already insurmountable need for stable housing and work that leave little income for necessities such as that medication. Some individuals may qualify for income support towards their treatment, but our society’s broken mental health system and impoverished social networks can take away these eligibilities once the individual has a criminal record (Edelman, 2017).
As we discussed in class, homelessness is one of the many destabilizing life events that can disproportionately affect subgroups like the mentally ill population, acting as a trigger to other problems like psychotic breaks. These breaks are commonly the result of experiencing trauma and violence, which we also know are highly correlated with homelessness (Edelman, 2017). Emergency shelters are set as somewhat effective solutions for the typical homeless population, but many are known to negatively target this subset of the low-income homeless population. The article discussed in class, Housing Not Handcuffs, explicitly describes how these institutions foster an unstable environment not fit for mental rehabilitation and can outright turn away those with documented severe mental illness. This leaves the mentally ill lower-class to join encampments, risking sweeps that could result in the loss of medications and irreplaceable mementos that are essential for mental stability (Middleton, 2014).
The lucky few offenders, one out of every fifty on average, get reentry programs to help them transition back into their community. Few homeless shelters even house the mentally ill, and even fewer help with their treatment (Middleton, 2014). Just one of the five men that this documentary followed had been one of those few, and he was the only left that had not been re-arrested by the time the filming period ended (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009). For obvious reason, I don’t believe that to have been a matter of coincidence.
The content presented in this documentary not only enhanced my knowledge about the mentally ill, but also solidified the belief that lower-income individuals are disproportionately affected by the cyclical nature of re-incarceration. I would recommend this media source to others that wish to see what is really waiting for lower-class ex-convicts on the other side. They would see that mental illness acts as a catalyst to both re-incarceration and homelessness, but not for lack of trying. Since this goes against the negative social blame we pin on those who struggle in ways we cannot understand, it is best to hear it from the five men themselves. But to sum up, every one of the five men had said they were “going to be gone and stay gone” from jails, and would be sure to take their medications to ensure that would happen (Navasky & O’Connor, 2009). Even so, what met them on the outside did next to nothing to facilitate true treatment; not financially, mentally, or socially within their communities. And so, whether they are lower-class individuals wrought with homelessness, lower-class individuals wrought with mental illness, or any variation and combination of the two, the released are inevitably lead to the damnation of repeated debt, re-incarceration, and relapse.
By Jenna Albitz
Edelman, P. B. (2017). Not a crime to be poor: the criminalization of poverty in America. New York: The New Press.
Middleton, M. K. (2014). Housing, Not Handcuffs: Homeless Misrecognition and “SafeGround Sacramentos” Homeless Activism. doi: 10.1111/cccr.12055
Navasky & O’Connor (2009, April 28). The Released. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/released/