Caught Up In The System By Patrice L. Daniels


Most of the guys I spent time with in juvenile correctional facilities and juvenile mental health facilities are now confined with me in the adult prisons.

I was about ten years old the first time I was checked into a mental health hospital. I had been labeled “emotionally disturbed” by a child psychologist. Due to the fact that I was a frequent bed-wetter, fire starter, and caused disruption at home and at school, a child psychologist labeled me as “emotionally disturbed and admitted me to a mental health hospital for a 90-day evaluation. My introduction to the institutional life.

By the age of ten I’d already been a sex abuse survivor, witness to numerous episodes of domestic abuse/violence, drug and alcohol abuse. Also I’d had my share of “Whippings” for this or that infraction — I was no little saint. Some “whippings” were more severe than others. It really depended on how badly I’d misbehaved and what kind of mood my guardian was in. Something I immediately took note of in institutional life was tha t there were no ”whippings.” A welcome relief, to say the least.

Poverty was also a part of my reality. So you may understand why I actually enjoyed being in Madden Mental Health Center.

That’s right, I said I enjoyed being in the hospital. It was so much nicer than home. It was safe. Clothing, housing, food, and medical care were a given. There were nice toys to play with and all kinds of activities and outings. The adult supervisors never yelled at us or cursed at us. Unlike the constant sense of dread and fear I lived with at home, they seemed genuinely concerned with my welfare and well being. Not only did I enjoy the perks, but also it seemed like my family treated me better when I came home on my weekend visits. Was it because they missed me? Was it because they only had to deal with me two days a week? Answers I don’t have.

It’s worth noting that I seemed to behave differently on the weekend visits. I was better behaved. In retrospect I’ve concluded my good behavior can be attributed to the fact that I was relieved. I knew that I didn’t have to stay at home. I knew that I was going back to Madden on Sunday evening and wouldn’t have to deal with all of the chaos at home. I hated being at home in those days. I believe that this first encounter set the stage for what would become a childhood and adolescence filled with stays and trips to institutions. My “career” encompasses almost two decades and I am only thirty years old. Over one half of my life has been spent in the system. It’s a very odd thing. It’s like a trap in many ways. Once you get in it you never seem to break free. I believe at a certain point I stopped caring about being “out.” Being “in” was such a familiar and comfortable situation that it became normal.

Although my account of the circumstances surrounding my introduction into the system may come across as very negative, I do not bemoan the fact that I have had a turbulent/difficult upbringing. Quite the contrary, I view it as a badge of perseverance. I think it speaks volumes to my intestinal fortitude and my capacity to endure.

As I was saying, being “in” was something I’d grown accustomed to. The way most institutions are structured lends itself to inertia. It breeds irresponsibility and encourages institutional dependency. It makes stagnation very easy to embrace.

The facility itself is designed to help. If you had someone who was willing to give you free food, clothing, medical care, housing, and a safe environment, irrespective of how you behaved, would you value that as much as if you had to work hard and earn those very same things?

Institutions need to figure out ways to integrate responsibility and rewards for responsible social behavior. If not, the result will continue to be a recycling of individuals who never really “grow” or get better. Institutional people choose the comfort, reliability, and familiarity of institutional living instead of the reality of the real world. Once one gets past being separated from family and friends, institutional life is relatively easy to deal with. That goes for adults and juveniles alike. Furthermore, in many cases being in an institution is far better than being at home.

Tragic and sad, but nevertheless it is true. A system, that, on it’s face, would appear to be committed to the betterment of society, has become a warehouse of sorts and a comforter condoning stagnation. Mostly by default, but just as real and damaging. The current structure of the system encourages underdevelopment and a lack of personal responsibility/improvement.

I cannot stress that enough. What I am advocating applies only to those that have a favorable prognosis. In some instances my rationale does not apply. I am speaking to those that do.

Finally, I want to say this. I don’t discount nor dismiss the many benefits incurred by me being in some of the institutions I’ve been in. I’ve experienced things I never would have otherwise — theatre, professional sporting events, hunting and fishing, and so forth. Not to mention a quality education and a free year of college. I am a more well rounded person as a result. With that said, being more well rounded on the surface level is no substitute for substantive and meaningful growth/development.

So I am still back at square one, which is, that structurally something needs to change within the system. Something needs to be developed that will encourage and advocate getting better. Otherwise institutions will continue to be a breeding ground for career patients/residents/inmates.

 For many people behind the wire, one day soon, or years in the future, you have the prospect of one day being released.  You need to think ahead and make some type of plan to have the doors of opportunities open up to you.  If the truth be told, it is difficult enough for a law abiding citizen to find a decent paying job once he or she is laid off.

      However, if your background is similar to mine: very little formal education; little or no work experience; decades in the penal system; extensive criminal record; and mid-50's, the odds of a successful reentry are very slim.  So I decided to get some type of game plan to beat the odds.  I want to be one of those success stories you read about and you can do the same.

     Myself, I plan to go to the local temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, community centers, homeless shelters, etc., where I can do volunteer work.  f also want those in the community to know that I am worth giving a second chance.  That hard work comes before success.  Years of working out, yoga, being aware of my environment, attending the law library and library weekly has enabled me to pass those skills on to others behind the wire.  AII of us can learn skills while here that one day we can share with those in the free-world.  Skills that will enable you to pay your bills and stay free.

      If you reflect long enough on some useful skills that you can share with others, they will come to mind.  Hopefully in helping others, someone might open up a door of opportunity for you.  And in the process, you will find peace of mind, redemption, joy or some type of satisfaction in doing no harm.

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