Magazine article Corrections Forum

Crazy in America: The Hidden Tragedy of Our Criminalized Mentally Ill

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Crazy in America: The Hidden Tragedy of Our Criminalized Mentally Ill

Article excerpt

Crazy in America: The hidden tragedy of our criminalized mentally ill

As we learn in the book "Crazy in America," the gulf that exists between America's mental health and criminal justice systems is a vast canyon. When people fall, it is not through a crack but into an abyss. A great storyteller, Pfeiffer relies on years of painstaking research, to tell a familiar tale in a powerful way that might just make a difference.

A skillful journalist, here Pfeiffer is working not as a reporter but as a columnist. She tries hard to be fair, but makes no pretense of objectivity; this book has an unabashed point of view. Her goal is to convince, to educate, and to advocate, to communicate meaning, and to instigate action.

Like Bruce Perry's recent classic, "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog," Pfeiffer interlaces the tragic stories of six flawed but likeable human beings with an impressive analytical critique of America's equally flawed, but far less likeable, policy shifts in the public provision of mental health and criminal justice.

Pfeiffer's characters were repeatedly told that they were too unstable-too sick-to qualify for treatment. The Catch-22 of Joseph Heller's fiction had come to horrifying life in the jails of Iowa, Texas, and Florida-you can get mental health treatment as long as you don't need it too badly.

The book is not perfect. Pfeiffer, for example, uncritically cites flawed research that supports her point of view about segregation, and ignores the realistic needs of correctional administrators to occasionally remove some extremely violent inmates from general population to protect the staff and other inmates they endanger.

But these flaws do nothing to weaken the book's overarching premise, that punishment, especially long-term segregation, is not and never will be a useful or humane treatment for serious mental illness. Police practices that are otherwise sensible result in tragedy-for the officers and the people whose lives they ended-when applied rigidly to people whose mental illnesses require flexibility and skills that are not always part of police training.

In the book's most shocking and infuriating scene, Shayne is accused of "manipulating" her captors, even after she has plucked out her own eyes in response to her demons. …

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