Telling Our Stories

Since the publication of CRAZY, not a week goes by without me getting a letter or email from a distraught parent whose son or daughter has been arrested or is in jail because of a crime that was clearly tied to mental illness. The most common comment that I hear when I am on the road giving speeches about my book is: “You told my story.”

I always feel inadequate when I try to answer requests from other parents seeking help. I’m not a lawyer. I urge people to contact their local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter or Mental Health America for guidance. I sometimes suggest  they contact the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. I ask if their local community has Crisis Intervention Trained police officers, a mental health court, or a jail diversion program.

And then I ask them to consider going public. I tell them newspaper and television reporters would be interested if they knew a person was put in jail because of a mental illness. Not everyone feels comfortable being interviewed. It also is never a good idea to expose someone you love to the media if he/she wants to keep their illness secret. Even though my son urged me to write my book, I spent many sleepless nights worrying that our openness about his arrest and illness would harm his future.

This is why I am always grateful when someone speaks out. It’s especially gratifying when the speaker is famous, such as Bill Kurtis, who talked poignantly first on Chicago television and then at the national NAMI convention about his son’s lifetime struggle with mental illness. But I also believe it is just as effective when the person isn’t nationally known.  Maureen Murdock recently wrote about her family’s experiences in the Huffington Post. I want to share it with you because, Maureen,  you’ve told “our” story. Thank you for your courage.

Eight years ago I taught a memoir writing course at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs for the International Women’s Writing Guild, and one of the women wrote about being the mother of a son in prison.

“People don’t realize,” she said, “that not only is my son behind bars but I’m behind bars, too. I see the fear and disgust in people’s eyes when I say my son is in prison. I imagine they’re thinking, ‘she must be a terrible mother for her son to be incarcerated.'”

I was deeply moved by her statement about being imprisoned. I had never thought about what it would be like to have a child in prison. She was the first memoirist I had encountered writing about being the mother of a convicted felon.

Now I am too.

My son was transferred from San Francisco County Jail to San Quentin three weeks ago. At the time of his sentencing hearing for receiving a stolen laptop, we were told that we wouldn’t hear from him for the 90 days that he would be in “reception” at San Quentin, awaiting the designation of the prison where he would serve his sentence. So I was surprised to receive his letter describing his environs.

San Quentin houses 1000 male inmates in cells along five vertical tiers. My son’s in a cell that’s 3-1/5 feet wide with a cellmate who is a “whitepride” skinhead from Humboldt County. “He’s a good guy by all means, but quite a powder keg if need be,” my son writes. There is no racial mixing at San Quentin, which is different from what he experienced at County. There, the whites, Latinos, Blacks and Asians hung out together. But not at San Quentin. At present he can stay “independent,” but I wonder for how long.

There is no desk or chair in his cell; only a bunk bed. He writes cramped, bunched in a space between the top bunk and “the sick green ceiling.” At the time of his writing he and his cellmate were confined to their cell, fed through the bars, awaiting a search. “All cells will be flipped and the prison guards enjoy throwing personal items — letters, photos, art, writing — over the tiers.”

“People flood their cells, or wash them, and black sheets of water rain, drip and cascade over the tiers. Sometimes it sounds like the ocean!” He writes about the sheer volume and cacophony of men yelling, singing, asking, pleading throughout the cells. There is no quiet time; the din is constant, the echo is intense: rap, rock, water, fans, metal clanking, shouts, laughs.”

I can hear the voices in my head and I don’t want to. I put the letter down.

I never expected him to end up in San Quentin. His Public Defender had reassured me he would serve out his sentence in County Jail. After all, his crime of receiving stolen property that he had paid for wasn’t a violent crime and he had taken responsibility and expressed remorse. Family members, friends and his doctors had written letters in support of a minimum sentence, citing the mitigating factor of his bipolar illness. I had sent the Judge a summary of his hospitalizations over the past 22 years not only for his brain disorder, but for a heart condition as well.

His father, my daughter, my son, his Public Defender and I pleaded for consideration of probation and treatment or a low sentence. So, we were all stunned when Superior Court Judge Ulmer looked at my son and said: “You come from a good background, you had a good education, you’ve suffered no hardship. Four years.”

After I recovered from the shock of the judge’s words, I wrote him about his obvious ignorance about different levels of societal hardship. Poverty, a difficult childhood and lack of education seemed to be his benchmark for what constitutes hardship — not dealing with the pain and debilitating effects of a mental illness. As a mental health professional, I even offered to send him information about how bipolar illness affects behavior, insight and judgment. I received no reply.

Under the sentencing guidelines, the judge could have given my son two years for his crime. He chose to give him four years instead, despite the overcrowding in California prisons and the extra cost to our state. This occurred three days before the United States Supreme Court ruled that more than 30,000 prisoners had to be released from California prisons within the next two years because of overcrowded conditions. They cited the fact that overcrowded conditions violate the 8th Amendment banning of cruel and unusual punishment. After the Supreme Court decision, Jeanne Woodford, a former director of the state prisons and a former warden at San Quentin was quoted in The New York Times as saying: “One major impact of the overcrowding, and a centerpiece of the Supreme Court’s ruling, is the lack of adequate health care for prisoners with mental illness or other chronic medical conditions” (May 25 2011). An inmate dies every week in at least one prison in California because of the horrible conditions to which they are subjected.

I know I am not the only parent coping with a family member who suffers from a brain disorder and has been swept up in the criminal justice system. Remember that mental illness is a brain disorder, not a willful deficiency of morality.

It is imperative that we educate prosecutors and judges about the behavioral effects of mental disorders, create mental health courts and find treatment for those who suffer from a brain disorder so they can be contributing members of society rather than a $50,000 a year drain on the public.

Maureen Murdock Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, psychology professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, the author of five internationally published books and a member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. The determined ignorance of our courts that imprisons the mentally ill is unbearably cruel.   The nightmare of losing my son to mental illness is a source of such helplessness for me.  Still, I do what I can.  I love and respect him where he is at the moment and I do the same for myself.  He has been in and out of jail and a short time in prison–never for any violent circumstances and yet harshly treated.  Often I think if I had more money or I knew more about schizophrenia or I had more power in the world, I could somehow make his life easier, better, safer. 
    Thank you, Pete Earley, for sharing your story.  “Crazy” gave me moments of not feeling so alone.

  2. Wow, this was difficult for me to read and I did so in tears, because it hit so close to home. My son spent five years in/out of Texas jails/prison facilities and never received treatment, only harsh incarceration and inhumane treatment behind bars. When he was unable to keep probation last year, he was then facing 10 years in prison. It was then that I realized if justice was to be served, no lawyer or mental health advocate was going to make it happen. No one was going to care and fight for him like I would. So I conducted my own in-depth investigation of the system and how it failed my son, which was then used in an 8-hour trial last October. As a result, the judge FINALLY sentenced him to treatment, after having already put him through 5 years of mental and physical torture, from which I pray every day he’ll somehow recover. 
    Maureen is correct – it’s not just the child who is imprisoned – I did and still do feel imprisoned in some ways. Yet I feet guilty even speaking of my pain, when his has been so untolerable, so barbaric. And I sometimes wonder if/when we’ll ever really be free from all we’ve endured and the fear of what may lurk around the corner. The heartache is something I could never have imagined and impossible for most people to understand, so I remain silent in my day-to-day life. But the memories cannot be erased, and the inexcusable injustice may never be forgotten. I have chosen not to share as publicly as others have suggested I do, because my son has asked me not to do so (although it ended up being a bit more public that he preferred). My first priority is to protect him and protect our relationship. But I certainly applaud those who have found the courage not only to live this hell – but to then re-live it by writing about it. Thank you, Pete and Maureen, for exposing the surreality of your pain in order to reach out to others who are enduring the same.  God bless you.

  3. It never fails to hurt when I read or hear of another family going through this travesty.  My son was incarcerated in 2008 for burglary (he was on the property only, not in, nor did he steal the items).  He served 1 year of his 3 year sentence and completed 2 year parole this month.  The first 4-6 months of his incarceration in TDCJ was spent in a mental lockup because he had completely lost his mind and did not even know his family when we were allowed to visit.  He is med compliant and doing well at this time, but we find ourselves waiting for the next shoe to fall. 

    We continue to love him and will do what we can to keep him from returning to the Harris County judicial system, which clearly, like so many others, has no idea how to properly administer “justice”.  We can only hope … and pray.  God bless you all for caring & sharing!

  4. As you can see by the pseudonym, I haven’t been able to disclose openly. I am a clinician in the mental health field and the way my license application read, having received treatment for a mental illness could make me ineligible to practice. Only the fact that I was treated though. I could be as crazy as I wanted and never worry about my license. I’m not going to go into that part though, it’s a common issue, but not what made me comment.
    You mentioned CIT. The large metro area that I live and practice in has public servants that are trained and they do send them to the calls involving mentally ill people. I used to think that was a good thing. Here it is most definitely NOT. 
    It is nice that this city has bothered to train it’s public servants, I’m sure that on some level higher up someone had the right idea. And it’s good PR. Until you see the ones they trained do their jobs, or maybe I should say, NOT do them. I have had several experiences where my path crossed theirs and if it weren’t for privacy laws I would have made a LOT of noise every time. 
    Briefly- the Fire Department. They are 911- the ones you call when there is no one else to help. They deny care to the mentally ill without batting an eyelash. I was working on an inpatient unit in the middle of the night a few months back. Our patient was a kid in his 20’s with no prior psych history. Had been getting loudly psychotic at night and his mom and dad took him t the ER for a medical eval. The ER heard about the symptoms, and without ruling out medical issues, they just did a blood count and drug screen, they sent him to an inpatient unit. Turns out he was medically ill, we never found out exactly what was wrong but he ended up in a delirium from his medical illness. Was hallucinating and became violent on the unit. The staff tried really hard but after he tried to ram his head into a sink he was restrained so that the meds he was given could work and he could be safe until they did.Then someone read in his chart that there was a question of possible xanax use, so we treated it as if it was withdrawal. This poor kid got multiple shots of ativan and valium and that should’ve been enough to help but when he started to twitch in a way that reminded us of a slow seizure we called 911. This type of unit has no ability to care for a patient as critically ill as that. When the FD showed up and saw him in restraints twitching and yelling incoherently they laughed, then refused to transport him saying that they weren’t trained in restraints. Then they left. 911 left. We finally called the county facility and found out who did psych transport, called them and they sent a paramedic and RN. His vitals were scary in the ambulance and he coded in the ER. It is my understanding that he did not regain concsiousness. He was not hurt by the restraints, it was the fact that his brain was frying and lacking oxygen, and the time that we spent trying to get help after the FD left that caused a hypoxic brain injury.
    This is not an isolated occurrence, it is my understanding that they did the same with a patient who was having chest pain.
    The PD isn’t any better. I know the ones who are usually sent, pt’s sometimes call 911 from the patient phone. They did have a good rapport with one patient who did it while I was on duty. However any good impression they made went out the window when the clinic I was working at had a violent and threatening client- a known drug user who was probably on meth and in a rage. He started a fight outside, and the other patient walked away, we cleared the waiting room and sent the other patients home with promises to reschedule them. This guy was court ordered and the MD filled out the papers to amend him to inpatient care, and we called 911. It took them 45 min to send any help, and in that time he smashed the glass front entrance and came in. We were behind a door that he thought was locked. It wasn’t and he could have jumped the front desk and gotten to us even if it had been. The CIT cops showed up eventually, probably weren’t close by and they didn’t send anyone in the meantime. They put the guy in cuffs, and then decided to just release him. He had threatened us, told us he’d find us and kill us, or come back and finish the job. He was amended and there should have been no question as legally he was to be brought in as soon as they found him for treatment. In the end the clinic director had to press charges for destruction of property because they were letting him go. If he had been released he would’ve hurt someone, possibly himself. The window was the reason they took him, and they let us know that they thought we were over reacting. They also smirked the whole time.
    It’s great to train the public servants, but someone has to make sure the right people get the training and that they do their jobs. These guys think it’s a big joke. It would probably be better to have no CIT PD or FD members in this city.