Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison

Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison

Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison

Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison


Mosaic of Despair describes the variety of stress transactions that occur in a setting - the prison - which is intended to be uncomfortable or punitive. The study offers an opportunity to view stress and personal crises in a real life context. This context has public policy relevance, because an increasing number of citizens must face confinement and the problems it presents.


Every sophomore knows (if he or she is enrolled in Psychology 101) that "stress" involves "appraisal," which includes a subjective experience of stress. But what is that experience like, other than uncomfortable? And what happens if a person continues to feel resourceless, or overwhelmed, or lost? How many ways are there to be at the end of one's rope, or in extremis, or in crisis?

Diagnostic manuals do not answer this question because they describe conditions rather than states, and emphasize differences—such as between situational and clinical depression—that are hard to pin down in the trenches, where the problem is despair and the need to ameliorate it. These junctures call for client-centered rescue efforts. As a distinct clinical modality, crisis interventions should match types of crisis. But maps are not available to help us decide what to do for different persons in crisis. As a result, interventions are often overblown or ill-targeted.

Persons in crisis are especially ill-served by being pathologized, as shown by the ease with which "suicidal ideation" earns psychiatric attention. This fact is of particular concern when professional resources are scarce, and the streets are full of patients who need such resources. Moreover, diagnosing a problem compartmentalizes it; it separates the person's "sick" difficulties from those of "nonsick" persons in the same environment. This is of course better than no one getting help, but it creates discontinuities and gaps in service spectrums and networks.

The task I assigned myself in this book was to map the range of personal crises I saw in one setting—the prison—where stress is prevalent. The point of the exercise was to sort through the mélange of misery manifest in this setting and to bring some order to this mélange. My goal was not to compete with but to supplement diagnostic questions. Such supplementation seemed appropriate for two reasons: first, to emphasize that crisis intervention is a different task from the amelioration of . . .

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