In Prison with Schizophrenia and Psychosis

Last year I visited a man with schizophrenia and psychosis at the Colorado State Penitentiary, a Level V security correctional institution for adult males who are the most violent, dangerous, and disruptive offenders.  (I call him David here.) His family, who lives in Kentucky, contacted me through my work at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and asked me to go to the prison.  His mother, whom he usually called every week, had not heard from him in months and she was jumpsuit

During a psychotic episode David jumped on a bus headed for who knows where.  When the bus stopped at a truck stop, he went inside, picked up a Buddha from the gift shop, and walked out the door.  Buddhism was an important part of David’s life, even more so when he was delusional. Unfortunately, that Buddha was valued at over $1000—a felony.  He was sentenced to a year that expanded to four because of his behavior in prison.  Untreated and psychotic, he was in and out of solitary confinement, once for throwing a cafeteria tray at a guard.  David’s family had been trying to get him transferred from the prison to the state hospital for over a year.  They had no idea what his physical or mental state was but feared the worst.

After a month, I succeed in getting on his visitor’s list and headed to the penitentiary to see him.  I was sitting in a booth separated by Plexiglas when a guard brought him in.  He wore an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed, feet chained, his eyes wild and afraid. His anxiety kept him from sitting.  Again and again from the other side of the glass, I reassured him that I was a friend; I was there for his mom; she was worried because he hadn’t called.   He was so silent I wondered if he could speak at all.   Trust came slowly but soon he settled into the chair and began to babble, too fast for me to keep up.  He was disoriented, scared, and clearly psychotic, but he understood one thing—he wanted out.  He pleaded with me to get him into the hospital even as I was walking out the door, my visiting time expired.

There was so little I could do.  I hadn’t even been allowed to bring him snacks or cards from his family.  The injustice was so apparent, the real crime not David’s, but the judicial and mental health care system that fails some of our most vulnerable.  Instead of treatment, David was being punished.  It’s such a common occurrence that those with mental illness comprise 25-30 percent of our prison population.   In fact our county sheriff calls his jail the local mental health institution.   Not only is the system unjust, it’s also costly, socially and economically. If David were in treatment, we, as taxpayers, would not be footing the expense of his incarceration, and David would have the chance to recover.

The good news is that two weeks after my visit, David was finally transferred to the forensic unit at the state hospital, which is reputed to be one of the better psychiatric hospitals in the state.  The last time I spoke with the family, they reported that David had stabilized, was calling his mother again, and his fear was gone.  I’d like to think it was because of my visit and my connection to NAMI. But whatever the reason, David was where he needed to be.


In Prison with Schizophrenia and Psychosis — 32 Comments

  1. Kathy and I send you a big “thank you” for your work. What a screwed country we have become. Maybe enough of us will see the value of your work to make a difference.

  2. My son was in prison, had been declared incompetent while in jail. The issue was when he went to prison his court ordered meds was not sent along nor the fact he had been incompetent, consequently he was not treated, spent much of his 7 months in solitary. I have recently interacted with state NAMI in my local area to help get my son into court ordered treatment (in whic he was declared incompetent agai), in which there was no bed available. Due to lack of beds he was going to be released to streets. The system in indeed broken across the country.

    • I’m so sorry about your son. I hope there are understanding people where he is and that he has an advocate. Someone like you. I see you do a lot of work with the homeless. What do they say–pay it forward? Perhaps there’s a NAMI or another advocacy organization who might help him. It’s unjust that people with mental illness are lumped in with the criminal population when it comes to arrest and imprisonment. In Colorado Springs, a caring judge has just started a mental heath court. There’s one in Denver as well. Best wishes, Kathy

    • I have heard so many stories like yours Jan. In jail without meds or any kind of treatment, then released to the streets without any support And the lack of beds seems to be a problem nationwide. No wonder so many with mental illness are homeless or in prison. It’s the worst crime of all. Thank goodness your son has your support.

  3. GOD BLESS you Kathy my daughter spent 15 years on a life sentence much of it in solitary however there are some states that allow inmates opportunities to help themselves and Nevada is one so I Thanked God every day she was NOT in the Texas penal system. I am going back to finish my PhD this Spring with an emphasis in Forensics.

  4. What a wonderful ending to a horrible story! How fortunate this family was to have found you, and your willingness to be of help to them. I’m sure it’s rewarding to you to be able to accomplish his receiving the care he needs. Please continue your ability to help our loved ones who are not receiving what they need and deserve. Bless you.

  5. I have a son he is mentaly ill,schizophrenia.for the last couples seven years he have been in institution homes.he is really he in jail and iam worry sick about him. i haveing talk to him in three months.i even been writing him and put money on a card trying to make sure he eat. went to see him . the sheriff told me that i could not because he had been acting up .he not going to act normal ,he not on his medicatin.I just dont know what to do.I left word with the chief he haveing call me back.I even tried to write the governor.

    • Hi Jean,

      I am so sorry to hear about your son. I feel your pain and helplessness. I would suggest you get in touch with the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) near you. Perhaps they will have some suggestions about who can help you or intervene with the criminal justice system on your behalf. Clearly your son needs his medication and without it, he’s going to continue to act out just as the man that I visited in prison in Colorado did. After a lot of intervention from his family and others, he was finally moved to the state hospital. The last time I heard from his family, he was back home with them. So there is hope.

    • My son was also a victim of the mental health carousel in this country. Yesterday he was convicted of murder and will spend the rest of his life in prison. I read all of the comments here with a heavy heart, knowing the pain of being powerless to help a loved one with this serious and life threatening illness who has fallen into the prison system. My question is : what can be done to bring about a real and lasting change? NAMI is a great organization and advocate, but how can we pool the power of our experiences to change the way mental health is viewed and treated (or untreated) in our society? How can we make our many voices heard? When my sister became ill in the late 1980’s, she spent 6 months in a psychiatric hospital until she was stable and educated on her condition. Today, they expect seriously ill people to function on an outpatient basis after a week in the hospital, and that is only if they are involuntarily committed, and if there is a bed available. This is a national disgrace, and no one cares. Please. What can I, what can each of us, do personally to bring about change?

  6. We live in WV and my son is currently in jail and has metal illness. He is not on any meds that he needs and is bad off mentally as well as physically. They keep him in restraints and says that he acts up. He will until he restarts his meds that the jail will not give him. They say that his rx’s are not on their jail formulary. Can some please give me advise.

    • I am so sorry about your son. I hear these stories again and again. Some 50% of those in our jails and prisons suffer from a mental illness when they should be getting treatment It is simply criminal. One thing you can try to do is take his medication to him. Perhaps his doctor or therapist can intervene. And you should connect with the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) near you for support and help for your son. They can provide resources.

      My thoughts are with you. Please let me know how it goes.


  7. Please help me. My son has mild schizophrenia. He is being accused of family violence against my Mother. Noone was there, so we do not know the story except it was unintentional and an accident, but the state prosecutes unless my Mom signs papers. He has no lawyer yet. My Mom is not pressing charges. The tarrant county jail refuses to give him his meds. It could be six weeks. He is scared. We had him regulated to a point that he was working pretty steady. What can be done.

    • I so wish I had a magic solution. Perhaps you can get your son’s doctor to intercede with the jail to get him back on his medications and for you to deliver this meds to the jail. And the sooner you can get a lawyer, the better. There are some who have experience with mental health issues. If you get connected with your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), you can find support and recommended resources in your community.

      I hope some of this is helpful and that you’ll let me know how it goes.


  8. My son is in the Cook County jail he has a mental illiness. June 20 he attacked his father and brother with a knife. He has not yet recieved treatment or any meds for his schizophrenia. I have spoken to the doctor there and has given them the meds he was on his doctor;s name & phone number but nothing has been done to help him. I see when I visit him he is afraid & is hearing voices again. What is it that I can do, concern parent

    • I’m so sorry, Diana. I hate that this happens and that getting medication is difficult if not impossible in jail. I wish I had some great advice. I would suggest that you get in touch with both NAMI-Chicago and NAMI Illinois. Perhaps they will have some suggestions and resources.

      Thinking of you and your son.


  9. Hi my grandson is an inmate has been for the last 4 years he was diagnosed with schizophrenia after he was incarcerated he has been transferred back and forth he was once in a psychiatric site where he was feeling more at ease and comfortable now he is at the county jail in san diego, ca but he has been place in isolation they say he has enemies inside and is for his own protection he was involved in a pass by shooting and was sentenced to 20 years in prison nobody died one person hurt but almost lost his eyesight in one eye. We think that he was misrepresented from the beginning and now with his schizophrenia who can help us with this we are unable to pay a regular lawyer criminal lawyers charge a fortune.

    • Hi Maria,

      I’m so, so sorry to hear about your grandson. Unfortunately, your story is all too familiar. Around 25% of those in our jails and prisons have a mental illness. It’s simply criminal. Are you able to find out if your grandson is getting treatment in the jail? Can you get his doctor to intervene in any way? I wish I had good answers for you. I always suggest that family members get connected to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). There should be a chapter in San Diego. You’ll find a lot of support and resources there.

  10. Wow ! I’m having a simuler situation my boyfriend has schizophrenia he just had got out of jail and went back in the last time I talk to him he was not making any sence what so ever he was talking about one thing then another then he had hung up on me and ever since then I have not heard from him for a week I’m starting to worry he usually calls me I also know hes not being given his meds it’s weird tho because when he was out he was acting just fine know he’s lost it !

  11. A lot of prisoners develop psychiatric problems like schizophrenia during or after being incarcerated. The life in jail is the primary thing that may have caused them this serious problem. Should they really be kept in jail or should they be given proper treatments in psychiatric hospitals or institutions? Well, to prevent them from having this serious problem, jail should have inmate calling solutions so that incarcerated people may have the chance to communicate with their loved ones for moral and emotional support.

  12. My son is in jail for Assault with a deadly weapon, no one was hurt but he has a prior, He takes his meds for schizophrenia He claims self defense, but I think he has a drug problem, He looks good while in jail not taking drugs, what can I do. thanks

    • Hi Rudy,

      I’m so sorry for your son’s trouble. I wish I had answers. I do always recommend that parents connect with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) for support. There should be an affiliate near you. Other than that, I guess it’s getting a lawyer and perhaps a psychiatrist involved. Costly, I’m sure.

      I hope you connect with NAMI though.


  13. My son was recently determined in 2015 {by a SSI Judge} to have schizophrenia since 2006, he was sentenced in 2013 to prison base on a state evaluation at forensic facility basically saying he was he was faking. What can I do to help my son who still has two years in prison.

    • Hi Walter,

      I’m so sorry about your son. I wish I had good answers about finding help. I always recommend that people get connected with their local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). You can find support for your family there. There should be a NAMI affiliate near you. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  14. I have a friend who was years ago diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and I have known one another for years and though have periodically lost contact due to all types of issues (She lost her job, was in and out of mental facilities, etc.). She has lost most of her friends. Her sisters have been unable to handle her. She is now well past retirement age and has been on social security disability for some time. Since last year she has been in jail. I will not say for what, but this is a college educated woman — very bright whose mental state has probably now deteriorated to schizophrenia. She has recently “unfriended” me since I “never take her on trips” or “have provided for her.” I am part of the problem as everyone wants her money. She has no money and has woven fantastic tales of delusion about who she is, how much she is worth, and how everyone has conspired against her. This is a sad story of a pretty girl, a very troubled adult, and now an inmate who needs a hospital with someone to organize her life and see to it that she takes her meds. I feel as if I was her last friend for I know what she once was, and had hoped she could be helped. Now, the system has locked her away, I fear for good. If she ever does get out, she will need all the help she can get. Our country does a grave disservice for those who are mentally incompetent

    • I agree and this is far too common. Too many of those with mental illness end up homeless, incarcerated, or worse. I have hope that things are changing as more and more people advocate for effective treatment and access.

      Best wishes,


      • Thank you, Kathy. My friend will probably never contact me again, but I periodically look her up in the jail listings to see if she is still there. I do not blame her and prefer to remember her the way she was. If she ever gets better, I will still be there for her — someone has to be there.

  15. Thank you Kathy. I do hope she gets out. She may not want to speak to me, but I will be there for her. She has no one.

  16. My brother is diagnosed schizophrenic and Bi-Polar. Last night he was arrested for excessive speeding and marijuana possession. What suggestions do you have for my mother on what to do to make sure he gets the proper medical treatment while in jail? He has prior offenses and will likely spend a lot of time in jail here in Colorado.

  17. My son is incarcerated with bipolar disorder. I have been trying desperately to get him into a mental health facility but to no avail. He calls frequently but rarely says anything when he calls. I have pleaded with them to get his medication but nothing has happened. My son is afraid of being put on suicide watch because he would be placed in a cold room alone with just his underwear on. I have reached out to every agency I can think of and I am exhausted. My son is spiraling fast and I can’t do anything! Please help me I am afraid I will get that dreaded phone call and that I cannot handle.

  18. I found your post while doing some research for a friend who is locked up in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. My friend is sane (and innocent but that’s a different story). In the 6 years she’s been locked up she’s never wrote to me about having a super scary roommate until now. Her roommate has schizophrenia and my friend is regularly locked in a cell with someone who doesn’t always recognize who she is and frequently hears her (through telepathy) talking about her and then gets upset. My friend says that the good news for her is that this girl won’t be in very long. The bad news for the rest of us is that she will be walking the streets again. Who knows if she will remember it the next time she stabs someone, but let’s hope it’s only in the arm again.

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