Physical and Mental Imprisonment


Is excess imprisonment a uniquely American problem?


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The escaped prisoner and murderer, Danilo Cavalcante, was captured in Pennsylvania last Wednesday, September 14th, after almost 2 weeks on the run. He apparently was planning an escape to Canada.

The next day, in my hometown of Milwaukee, the first preview performance of the world premiere of the rock musical “Run, Bambi, Run” took place, depicting the life of Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek inside and outside of prison. She actually did escape to Canada, but was caught and returned with a plea deal. I asked the playwright and he thought she had seen a psychiatrist in prison.

Soon, on September 26, the Metropolitan Opera will revive the opera “Dead Man Walking” for the opening of the season. In 1982, a nun began a relationship with a man on death row, and the opera tracks their story through anger, despair, redemption, and execution.

Was it just coincidence that these prison-related events were all happening around the same time? Or were they reflecting something important about our country at this time?

I thought back to the early years of the new millennium, when I worked in a medium security men’s prison in Wisconsin. During the years, no one escaped, but other issues dovetailed with these real and dramatized prison scenes.

For the most part, prison is more of a punishment than a rehabilitation experience in the United States. Our country leads the world’s major countries in imprisonment. About the only inmates who I came to know who wanted to stay in prison were those with chronic and severe mental disorders, or more rarely, those who thought they might be on a gang hit list.

I wrote about this prison experience for Psychiatric Times years back. Wondering if I had faced “evil,” I won a Healthcare Journalism award in the process.

For some prisoners, the question of innocence or guilt was still uncertain, even with DNA testing. Trusting what they said was a challenge in forming a therapeutic alliance.

Young Black men were overrepresented and diagnosed mainly with sociopathy when I came. If they trusted us, we often found out about their real life past and recent trauma. That made healing possible.

Outside of prisons, we currently have prominent news about political indictments and potential prison sentences in the future. “Alternative facts” were previously used about controversy and differences of opinion. We also have increased cultish influence of thinking and action on the internet, which could be called mental imprisonment. Internally, we have the Goldwater Rule, which limits what we psychiatrists can say publicly about public figures.

The truth is essential for the best functioning of a democracy. It is also important in psychiatry, especially in ascertaining the reality of prior trauma or changing the erroneous cognitive beliefs common in clinical depression and somewhat even in those with schizophrenia.

With these challenges, one could even consider that the central role of social and some other psychiatrists is increasing inner and outer freedom of thought and situation, a professional identity I discussed some months back in a long video interview conversation with the cult expert, Jon Atack.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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