From My Files: My First Experience With Madness In Prison

When I posted this blog in May 2010 there were an estimated 350,000 persons with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, in American jails and prisons. Incredibly, that number has nearly doubled now, with an estimated half million behind bars. The creation of Mental Health Courts, Intercept Programs, Jail Diversion and Re-Entry Programs has helped slow the tide, but our jails and prisons are still filling up with persons whose only real crime is that they became ill. 

Prisons, Cats and Oilmen

The first time I went into a prison as a reporter was in the mid- 1970s when I worked at the now closed Tulsa Tribune.  The city editor, Windsor Ridenour, assigned me to cover a meeting at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where the pardon and parole board was convening to decide who would remain behind bars and who would be freed.

I suspect Windsor wanted me to see a rougher side of life from what I had experienced as the son of a minister, but I doubt he had any idea how that visit would ultimately impact my life. I have never forgotten my first trip into the white knuckle hell that is McAlester and that experience is what ultimately caused me to return to prison a decade later and write The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, which recounts a year that I spent off-and-on inside a maximum security penitentiary.

The prison in McAlester is also where I first saw how persons with mental illness were being abused and warehoused. During the mid-1970s, psychotic inmates were shot with Thorazine that turned them into drooling zombies who rarely left their bunks.

I was so disgusted by what I saw inside the prison that I wrote an expose for the Tribune. I thought it would outrage the public and prompt reforms.

But my expose was greeted by silence. There was no community anger, no letters to the editors, not a single reaction from an elected official.

Shortly after my series was published, a cat crawled through a hole into a warm spot seeking shelter. What the cat didn’t realize was that she had taken refuge inside a hollow portion of a state landmark called The Golden Driller.

Oil Man.

In 1953, Tulsa commemorated the importance that oil had played in the state and city’s history by erecting a statue of a “roustabout” – a barrel chested oil worker – on the Tulsa fairgrounds. The statue was such a hit that a permanent one built from iron and concrete was put into place in 1966.

Reputed to be the largest free-standing statue in the world, the Golden Driller is 76 feet tall, so high that the figure’s right hand rests atop an actual oil derrick.

A short time after that cat curled up inside the base of the statue, a workman repaired the hole sealing the feline inside. Fortunately, someone walking by the Golden Driller heard the cat meowing and The Tulsa Tribune got a call. I was sent to investigate and I wrote a story about the stranded animal’s plight.

All hell broke loose. Crowds congregated around the statue. A radio station did a play-by-play broadcast when the firemen arrived to free the cat. Syndicated commentator Paul Harvey telephoned for an update.

The cat was rescued.

For a young reporter, the contrast was shocking. I had exposed human suffering in prison and no one had blinked. But the cat had attracted national attention.

I have thought about this may times and I think I understand what happened. The public felt pity for the cat because it was innocent. Those in jails and prisons were not. They were getting what they deserved.

I’m not naive. I know that having a mental illness does not give someone a free pass when it comes to committing crimes and we all know there are criminals out there who are anti-social.

But the persons with mental illnesses I saw in the Oklahoma prison and thirty years later on the ninth floor of the Miami Dade County jail were not hardened criminals. They were men who had severe mental illnesses and had ended up behind bars because of our failed mental health system. Their only real crime was getting sick.

All one has to do to track the “trans-institutionalization” that has taken place in our nation is to compare the exodus of patients from state mental hospitals with the increase of inmates with mental disorders in our jails and prisons. Today there are 350,000 persons with severe mental disorders incarcerated and another 500,000 on probation.

So why is there so little sympathy for persons with mental disorders, who are in jail or are “frequent flyers” — caught in an endless cycle of  homelessness and jails?

I believe one of the biggest reasons is fear.

We want to believe that a psychotic man who is in jail or is  homeless deserves it because he is a bum, a drunk, a drug addict or simply a bad person. We want to believe that this individual got a mental illness because he was weak minded, had horrible parents, abused drugs, or for some other reason related to his own actions. Whatever he did, he brought it on himself.

We want to believe that because if we don’t – if we admit that these men have an illness that is beyond their control and is something that they got entirely by chance – then, well, that’s frightening because it means we could get it too. It could happen to us or someone we love.

That’s why its easier for us to close our eyes when it comes to the homeless and jailed psychotic men and women around us.

We are afraid.

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. Chrisa Hickey says

    So how can we stop the general public from being afraid? How can we stop using our prison system to treat biological illnesses? I feel we need to put a human face on mental illness. We need to have the courage to come out of the closet and stand up and be counted. It’s time to move from awareness to demand to be seen, demand action.

    • Nancine.lwo says

      Well, we can not stop the general public from being afraid. Unless the public undergoes real personal change. It is an unbalanced state of mind that is fearful. A good degree of psych-spiritual-mental work is required for human beings to rise above the natural state of fearfulness. Fear is at the root of all ills – anxiety, greed, envy, and so forth. To put a human face on it can make a huge ditfference in quelling, or lessening the fears.How is that done? Responsibly minded recovered mentally ill can break through their own fears from stigma, and by strongheartedly taking personal risks,
      can ‘leave the closet and stand up and be heard.”
           Many prisoners from terrorist and mentally ill backgrounds were mistreated at Abu Grey, the U.S.compound that held many foreign suspects. Loads of lawyers rallied for their ‘right not to be tortured’. National sympathies for men accused of killing women and children were stirred up. Things changed. Laws changed. How did they do it?
              We are talking brothers and sisters and friends of our American communities, sick, needing good health care, and instead being tortured and abused by drugs and deviant human behavior of other inmates and often mentally disturbed guards. Its not Abu Gray, but worse -exposed in the 1970’s; a generation later the atrocities continue, while millions live their American dream.  
           The mentally ill, as they largely have no voice whatsoever, could do with what the blacks had in Dr. King. Someone who is fed up, tired of talk, repeated abusive, negligent actions, and ho-hum reform and fix-it ideas that go nowhere. Maybe the dream that most mentally ill have, that they can and do regain their whole health, needs to be shared with the public.
      The public that in fear, only wants them drugged, tucked away in programs, supervised housing, locked up, or executed, in the name of safety. 
              One step, one person, at a time, coming out, speaking out,. Accentuate absolutely everything positive about yourself, as one w/ a mental illness. Dispel public notions that the mentally ill are no-good weak, burden -on-society potentially violent people worthy to be stigmatized against. Advocates, families and mental health professionals can talk til they’re blue in the face about how worthy the mentally ill are for good health care and meaningful healthy lives.Real mentally ill people, recovered and acting with intelligence, compassion, leadership, and purpose, CAN make a difference. The facts are many w/ these illnesses are bright people contributing much to their society. It is these individuals who will humanize and erase the ugly face that stigma paints on the mentally ill.
           If one speaks out, another might join. Not a share your story type thing
      under the protective cloak of well-meaning supporters, but on your own or w/ others managing their illness well.  
                I feel that first, the mentally ill need to courageously come forward asserting themselves as people who live successfully w/ a most difficult illness.     

  2. Your stories are so powerful and meaningful. Any conversation on mental illness at a national level-I want you, Mr. Earley to be a part of. The Mental Health System needs an overhaul and I think that much we can all agree on. The president should appoint a Mental Health Czar to lead the effort and I and probably many others would like to see you in that role, or closely involved.
    Your advocacy is so inspiring and so needed at this time.
    To those struggling with mental illness-you’re always in my prayers. And, to the families caring for them and loving them-you have all of my respect and keep on fighting for them.

  3. Nicely done. Jails and prisons treat many biologically-based illnesses: psychosis, heart disease, diabetes, and HIV among others. Correctional healthcare is part of the broader spectrum of public health services. Increasing numbers of physicians, including psychiatrists, are recognizing that forensic practice can be quite challenging and rewarding. There is less stigma to working in a correctional facility now than there was twenty years ago, and speaking openly about this may help our patients as well.

  4. wailingwall says

    How sad for you, Pete, to witness the same injustices 40 years later.
    People with AIDS were treated with fear and isoaltion until real facts were
    publicized about the disease, its origin and transmission.
       The facts about the origin or causes of mental illness are not public knowledge, yet. And so a horrible fear persists.
       I can understand that fear.
       But I can’t understand not rising above it to show compassion, even common decency, simple human kindness to others.
       40 years…
    How many more before a few brave people, step up and say enough?

  5. Pete your comparison between rescuing a cat and saving the life of an incarcerated individual with mental illness says it all. Fear is a huge part of stigma. Your article captures the point well. Your question and challenge are thought provoking. There can be many champions for the cause if each of us put our personal fears aside to find the courage to speak up and often about this.

  6. The state of Montana continues its path of convicting and torturing mentally ill inmates.  Inmates who because the state of Montana correctional system refuses to identify, adequately treat, and stabilize inmates, sometimes denies inmates are ill therefore exacerbates the illness therefore influences behavior. Therefore no parole, no help, no treatment, no educated Probation Officers,therefore the revolving door and guaranteed paychecks for the DOC Union employees and lofty salary’s for DOC Administrators and their loathsome legal staff who continually defend the indefensible.