Line Up for Your Pills, the Nurse is Here

Med cups sketched by Jeannette Tossounian in jail

Mental Health in Jail

By Jeannette Tossounian

December 12, 2018

(This article was written in 2014 in a half way house not long after my release from jail.)

I have heard plenty about mental health concerns in our Canadian prisons. This has been a subject made popular after the death of teenager Ashley Smith who was incarcerated at Grand Valley Institute in Kitchener, Ontario. However, it is obvious by the public perspective, that society in general have no idea how mental health is like in jail.

Well, after spending two years in a women’s detention center in Ontario, I could relate my expertise with mental health in jail through my experiences and what I have witnessed.

When I was first incarcerated, I was sent to see a number of psychiatrists for evaluation. The conclusion was that I had no apparent mental health concerns. When I went back on the range to tell the other inmates of the decision, they all told me to go back and tell the psychiatrist that I hear voices and see things that are not there. This confused me. Why would I want to lie like that? Isn’t it a good thing I’m mentally healthy?

Then I was encouraged by inmates to get myself prescribed seroquel, a popular drug used to treat schizophrenia. Apparently it is the easiest way to get high in jail and therefore the drug most sought after by inmates.

I told the other inmates I have no urge to get diagnosed as a schizophrenic, let alone want to get high. I was determined to be mentally alert in a place that was unpredictable. It was fine with the inmates that I wanted to keep my head straight; however, they wanted to get high and wanted me to get prescription drugs so that I could sell the pills to them. This idea was horrid to me and I refused to comply, thankfully with no altercations.

The nurse comes on range twice a day to dispense regular medications. When the meds are called, the majority of the inmates grab a little paper cup of water and happily get in the long line. Trades are made and after the med line is done, inmates take the pills out of their mouths where they were ‘cheeked’ or kept under the tongue without swallowing. Then some inmates would proceed to a table, crush a variety of medications, mix them together and snort them. Others would just trade them like candy. Apparently if drugs are mixed, there is a chance that one medication will react to another and will result in the snorter obtaining a stronger high.

Because I was not participating in the medications made available, I was often approached by jail staff suggesting that I should get something prescribed to make my jail experience easier. I had no urge to be drugged into oblivion just to pass the time by. I have watched other inmates who were coherent, aware and pleasant to talk to when they first arrived, become red-eyed and non-responsive after medication. There was no way I wanted to do that to myself. Instead, I kept myself busy drawing and writing.

There is this public concept that we need to make special changes for those in jail with mental illness. However, that would, in reality, mean the whole jail. Nearly everyone incarcerated is diagnosed with a mental illness to some degree. If they are not currently diagnosed, they could easily be later.

Very few inmates actually take medications because they really believe they need the pills to help them with their mental illness. For the majority, it’s all about getting high. For some, it’s about getting the diagnosis of a mental illness to reduce their charges and their sentence. For example, a diagnosis will help inmates who are being charged with attempted murder reduce their charge down to assault. To go through an extensive psychological evaluation for such serious charges cost tax payers as they are usually done through publicly funded organizations. If a lawyer is not satisfied with one psychiatric diagnosis, they could get a second opinion which cost yet more money, including Legal Aid money for the lawyer fees.

If corrections do in fact create better facilities for those who are mentally ill, every inmate will now have a new motive to act as crazy as possible in order to get into these better places.

Most women stuck in jail have one thing in common, no one is there to love and support them. If they did have someone on their side, they would most likely not be in jail at all, nor addicted so harshly to any type of drug they could get their hands on. All everyone needs is love, understanding and to be accepted for who they are. Without these things, we are lost.

This is essay is among many others published in the book ‘Crooked Corrections’ by Jeannette Tossounian

The sketch of the medication cups is published in a collection of jail sketches and poems called ‘Songs From The Slammer‘ by Jeannette Tossounian


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