The Quiet Part, Out Loud: Mental Health, Incarceration, and Reentry

by Daniel A. Rosen |

December 31, 2022

Christmas has come and gone, again. The calendar will likely have flipped to 2023 by the time you read this. A full year has passed since that first strange holiday season as a “free man” last winter, after six years incarcerated. On my desk still sits a framed print that reminds me to wonder: “Where will I be a year from now?” Events and their meanings are only really clear in hindsight, if they ever are at all – in the moment, “the information is unavailable to the mortal man,” as Paul Simon once put it. But this seems like a good moment to check in with 2022, and the issues that keep coming up around mental health and emotional well-being. The last few years have driven people to start sharing and airing these issues, and talking about them more publicly. So:

A year ago, I was living at an unsupportive halfway house, two months post-release, feeling uncomfortably out of place in the world and having difficulty getting my bearings. I projected bravado, mostly, and told everyone I was fine, I was great, I was free. But when you walk out the door of a prison, every part of your life changes in an instant, and it’s overwhelming. I found myself frozen sometimes, unable to move in any one direction for fear of making the wrong choice. And yet, I was expected to navigate rebuilding a life. I wasn’t fine.

I had enough sense to make a couple changes that helped: I found a therapist, initially for free through a local reentry organization, and got myself a rent-subsidized apartment I could afford, a refuge where I have some peace. Both were crucial to finding a healthy path forward.

This past year has been full of both highs and lows, both successes and…opportunities to learn something. I’ve mostly stopped using words like “failures.” Someone in my life this past year clued me in to just how negatively I talked to myself, and I was forced to begin examining the insidious impact it has on my sense of self. I used to carry that judgmental, critical mirror as a badge of self-worth, but I’ve begun to understand that it’s actually a ticket to shame, relapse, and recidivism. If you think that nothing you do is good enough, you will eventually turn yourself into the “worthless” person you think you are, I’ve realized.

A therapist more recently suggested that I be evaluated for an untreated, underlying mood disorder – anxiety, more specifically – and when I stiffened my back in my usual posture of defensiveness and resistance, I had to ask myself why. I try to notice these reactions now. And I had to admit that my views about it were political, not clinical. Because the over-medication of America and my contempt toward Big Pharma have nothing to do with what what’s going to help me move forward in my life. Of course, meditation, a healthy diet, and exercise are parts of that formula too, but I had to agree I may not be able to “wellness” my way out of long-standing counterproductive behavioral patterns and responses. My therapist might know a thing or two, and it might be time to listen.

The truth is, I met almost no one in prison who was healthy. It’s not an environment that promotes mental health and emotional well-being. Instead, incarceration tears you down; it’s a constant assault on the senses, full of toxic negativity, anger, trauma, and a total lack of agency. And full of people coming in with serious mental health issues, needing treatment they won’t get. The small islands of positivity you might find in the midst of it – a person or a program or even a staff member where you encounter some respite and kindness and positivity if you’re lucky – are few and far between and you cling to them. The few who make it through all that with their sanity intact do so despite the institutional response, not because of it. Jail and prison are expensive ways to make serious problems worse, in my experience. I lived for years among people clearly struggling with anger, depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, addiction, personality and mood disorders, post-traumatic stress, and other issues. Mental health issues inside are often handled inside with discipline, force, and a further loss of agency.

The sad fact is that we over-criminalize behavioral and emotional health struggles in this country, especially for poor people and people of color. We do the same with drug addiction and other types of addiction. Wealthy white people often end up in treatment or diversion programs, while everyone else usually ends up in jail and prison. The maladaptive coping mechanisms they show up with – the ones that got them there – are how many people deal with their problems. They may have grown up in unhealthy circumstances, or fallen into them without support and treatment available, or been traumatized by any number of adverse life experiences. Mental health treatment to address it, like all health care in America, is expensive and inaccessible to many except the wealthiest. Jail and prison become the end result.

And then people eventually come back into communities, still carrying their original problems around, plus whatever was added while they were incarcerated.  The most successful reentry programs will help people deal with those issues squarely. They’ll offer not only peer counselors to navigate city services, but emotional supports to navigate trauma and dislocation. And I’ve started to see more awareness that success is impossible without addressing these internal struggles. When release papers come with a peer counselor and a therapist or support group in addition to a probation officer, we may start making more headway on recidivism.

Recidivism is a scary word, for a felon. One day shy of my first freedom anniversary, my probation officer handed me a violation report. It felt like failure, in the moment. According to the terms of my probation, I deserved it. I was discharged from the treatment program that was a mandatory condition of my release, and had to face a Superior Court judge in a courtroom I thought I’d left far behind me. I have another hearing coming up in January and will see the judge again in March, as a result of my lapses in dealing with the behavioral and emotional issues that got me incarcerated to start with.

I have the benefit now of a therapist, a treatment program, an addiction recovery group, a faith-based support group, and a reentry support group. Not to mention a lot of supportive people in my life. I’ve added some of those pieces lately, in the aftermath of my probation violation, knowing that what I’d been doing this last year wasn’t entirely working. Yeah, that’s a lot of support, and way more than most people get, but I’m taking my “behavioral sobriety” seriously now. That failure was an opportunity to do 2023 differently, I know.

Christmastime this second year out of prison was a little different. I spent a quiet week at home recharging, cooking, and catching up with friends via texts and phone calls. I didn’t work, which is one way I usually evade whatever’s bothering me. I spent some time being uncomfortable and not running from it. I got myself a driver’s permit too, a small step toward rebuilding my life – but a different life.

I’ve spent a lot of this week thinking about these quiet parts, the parts that normally remain unspoken. Or that only get spoken with therapists, social workers, treatment providers, or in our heads. I’m seeing them raised publicly more and more, and know that the openness and honesty of that dialogue is important to my own rebuilding and recovery and that of so many others. Successful reentry for returning citizens isn’t just about housing and jobs and health care. It has to be about investing in people’s ability to address the thoughts and feelings that led to that cell in the first place, and their healing from the traumas of life before and during incarceration.

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