The horrors of the incarceration system are so robust and complex that there’s truly no one answer the problem. There is no end to what we could cover in this episode. It’s been a really difficult episode to plan for. In a two-part special, Ghouls are discussing the horrors of our mass incarceration system. Gabe explores the many issues and offers an abundance of documentary suggestions while also reviewing the claymation film, Wendell & Wild. Special guest, Pascale Vallee, shares her findings from her Masters research about the harmful effects on one's mental health while incarcerated. There are many ways our system fails us. We encourage you to learn more about our monstrous and horrific systems so that you can help change them.
Sources in this Episode: Why Is Rikers Island Still Open And Why Won't NYC Mayor Eric Adams Accept The Help He Needs? 40% of incarcerated people have chronic conditions — how good is the health care they get behind bars? Access to primary care in Philly varies greatly by neighborhood A Reckoning in Philadelphia The Healing Power of Greek Tragedy The Dose–Response of Time Served in Prison on Mortality: New York State, 1989–2003 Explore Data on Philadelphia's Returning CitizensCountries with the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, as of May 2021 Impact of Incarceration on Health Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons Incarceration and Population Health in Wealthy Democracies Reentry Preparedness among soon-to-be-released inmates and the role of time served
Recommended Reading/Ways to Help: Ten Years After “The New Jim Crow” | The New Yorker
Fighting to #FreeTheVulnerable During the Pandemic | Amistad Law Project PETITION: Close Rikers Without Building New Jails in NYC - Action Network Prison Abolition Resource Guide – micah herskind Full Reading List — Abolitionist Futures
Kids For Cash | Documentary
Media from this week's episode:
Wendell & Wild (2022):
Two scheming demon brothers, Wendell and Wild, enlist the aid of 13-year-old Kat Elliot to summon them to the Land of the Living.
Director: Henry Selick (Coraline)
Writers: Henry Selick(screenplay), Jordan Peele(screenplay), Clay McLeod Chapman(based on the book by)
The Unending, complex problems with the prison industrial complex. (oh and a review about Wendell & Wild) by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
There are remarkably no horror movies overtly about prison. Horror is a genre that is often used to criticize real-world horrors and I was expecting to find no end to content options. Horror isn’t a genre that shies away from truly horrifying issues but is hauntingly quiet about this one. There are plenty of films about prisons and it can be argued that the documentaries about our prison system are horror on their own. But it’s truly been a struggle to find content to cover this week. We’ve covered prisons before in different ways. We even interviewed the director of Belly of the Beast, a horrifying documentary about the California prisons that were forcibly sterilizing women of color. We’ve even covered documentaries on our show before, it isn’t always narrative work. So we worked rather hard to find one to talk about. The thing about the horrors of America’s Mass Incarceration system is that there is no one film that can truly cover it. Ava Duvernay’s Thirteenth does an amazing job of exploring the thesis behind Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Both cover the racist and oppressive system we find a large chunk of our population to be victims of.
The horrors of the incarceration system are so robust and complex that there’s truly no one answer the problem, other than abolition. Our systems aren’t built for rehabilitation. They are not given tools or education with the intention that once they return to society, they’ll be able to live better lives. The prison system isn’t even a band-aid. It’s a weapon. It’s a strategy. The system works to get people, very specific people, in, for profit, for control. And they make it impossible to get out and stay out. There is no end to what we could cover in this episode. It’s been a really difficult episode to plan for. We could talk about how incarcerated people work for pennies, a new form of slavery or indentured servitude. We could talk about how they are confined to spaces that are damaging to them physically, mentally, and spiritually. Studies have been done explaining the mental damage of folx institutionalized. We could discuss the sexual assault or the overall assault and abuse on incarcerated people. We could again discuss the forced steralization and other eugenics practices conducted in our prisons. We could cover our bail system which is an oppressive tool that affects the lower class, imprisoning people because they are poor. You’ll hear in next week’s episode when I talk with an incarcerated individual and a social worker, that commissary prices have gone up.
We could talk about Kalief Browder, incarcerated on Riker’s Island before he even stood on trial and during his time there, spent 700 days in solitary confinement. The damage so severe and traumatizing that he took his own life two years after his release. We could talk about the other horrors of Rikers and how it should be shut down. An OP-ED on News One, Why Is Rikers Island Still Open And Why Won't NYC Mayor Eric Adams Accept The Help He Needs?, explains, “Built to only hold 3,000 people, Rikers contains approximately 5,500 people. The packed cells and worsening deaths, abuse, violence and illness are also evidence of how cash bail has been weaponized against the poor to deprive them of their rights.” As of July 2022, over 20 people had died while incarcerated at Rikers. Mind you, Rikers is specifically a pre-trial detention center. Over 90% of those in the center are Black and brown New Yorkers. They are people who have not been convicted of a crime. They are simply poor and cannot afford bail. Last year, it was even declared a humanitarian crisis. You’ll find in our Ways to Help section, resources to support the campaign to shut down Rikers.
All of this and more can be unpacked about our toxic and abusive incarceration system. But this is the film analysis portion of our show so let’s unpack something that surprised me on my journey to find some prison horror content. Just a week before we were set to record this episode, Kat and I decided to watch Jordan Peele and Henry Selick’s claymation film, Wendell & Wild. Of course, we knew there would be more than whimsy to be found in a Peele film but we weren’t expecting this. Wendell & Wild is a film about two demon brothers trying to get to the Land of the Living. They use a young girl, Kat to do so. But this film, as always, is about so much more. Wendell & Wild, at it’s core, is about the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex. About a third of the way through the film, I said to Kat, “this film is about prisons!” and they immediately found several articles backing that thought up.
Wendell & Wild is a hauntingly charming film with a beautiful cast of characters. I loved Wednesday, but I was so hesitant to watch it given Tim Burton’s comments about how darker complexions don’t work with his aesthetic. This film laughs, hysterically, in his face. There are Black characters, mixed characters, Latiné and Indigenous characters! Each one was so unique and wonderfully suited for the claymation medium. It really was a pleasure to watch. It’s not a subtle film in the slightest. Even featuring a villainous character that is very much stylized after Trump. The demons of the film aren’t the villains and the practice of interacting with those demons isn’t even seen as villainous behavior. There is sympathy for them!
This film could’ve easily resulted in another haunted towns episode. Kat’s parents run a root beer brewery and it is the heart of this small town, Rust Bank. They care about their community and you know immediately that they are going to be Disney-parents’d because they’re just too good to be true. They are continuously offered deals by the Klaxons (the Trump-esque man and his wife) to sell their property to make way for a new prison. Her parents and the town council refuse. After an accident on a bridge results in the death of her parents, we learn that the orphaned Kat has acted out in her different homes and now finds herself as part of a rehabilitation program, called “Break the Cycle”, back in her hometown. The town is terribly changed since she was last here. Klax Korp has taken over everything and there was a terrible fire at the root beer brewery that resulted in the death of all the workers there. Rust Bank is but a shell of it’s former self. While at this school that hopes to fix her or at least look good for trying, she discovers her connection to demons. Kat is a Hell Maiden and can commune with demons. These devilish brothers, Wendell and Wild, learning of her abilities, strike a deal with her to bring her parents back from the dead. Hyjinx ensue.
The other students at the school are quick to want to be Kat’s friend, including the annoying but sweet trio of popular girls led by Klaxon’s own daughter. Further, there is a trans boy, Raul who becomes an unlikely friend and hero. One of my favorite parts of this was that his identity was discussed a few times but never did it feel like a joke or problematic. The school is an all-girls school and yet, Raul is there, so it’s easy to quickly understand his identity. (Reminded me of Heartbreakers). Siobahn Klaxon misgenders him once and apologizes. Someone over the phone misgenders him and is corrected by his mother. But never once did Kat misgender him nor did any of the “villains”, the demons often called him a boy.
The Klaxons hope to build a new for-profit prison in Rust Bank with small cells. This is to fit as many people as they can. Rust Bank is so broken they expect anyone who leaves the system will find themselves back in it. Further, the Klaxons want to form their own “Second Chance” program which will flood Kat’s school with youth leaving the incarceration system. Hoping this influx of traumatized and troubled teens will overwhelm the staff, resulting in recidivism. This is all in the hopes of becoming even richer. Pennsylvania has it’s own troubles with for-profit prisons. I recommend the Cash for Kids documentary which is unsettling and horrifying. In fact, this goal is so blatant there’s an entire conversation about it between Siobahn and her parents.
Siobhan: Mummy, Daddy, I know the truth about your prisons.
Lane Klaxon: And what is that, Siobhan?
Siobhan: Well, you make a pile of money for every prisoner you take. So you pack them in like sardines, provide crap food, crap medical, dangerous conditions, and zero rehabilitation.
Lane: I am proud of you dear.
Irmgard Klaxon: That’s our business model, exactly.
The biggest take-away of this film was understanding the villains. At first, you’re to believe Wendell and Wild, or even their father Buffalo Belzer are the villains. The brothers lie to Kat and work to manipulate her into getting what they want, funding to build their own amusement park. Their father imprisons them to, they believe, keep them from changing the current park system he runs for torturing folx. However, the brothers become allies in the fight against the Klaxons and we learn their father was worried the brothers would come to the surface and be lost forever. This is because all his other children were missing after coming up here. We learn they’d been, you guessed it, imprisoned in capsules by demon-hunter and school staff person, Manberg. He releases them in the end because even these demons deserve freedom.
Our incarceration system isn’t broken, it was built this way for a reason: to oppress and for profit. Our systems do not encourage or equip those incarcerated with tools for rehabilitation. It segregates entire populations and relies on recidivism. Our systems are not addressing the causes or core issues of crime, it does not seek to prevent crime because it can profit off of it. When Henry Selick chose to make the Klaxons and their prisons the true villains, he was telling us that we need to focus on returning citizens. That the real horrors aren’t in Hell at all, but rather, right here.
Mental Illness & Incarceration: Damaging Our Brains, Bodies, and Communities by Pascale Vallee
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Institutionalized spaces are often involuntary congregation points for vulnerable and often stigmatized populations which often experience disparities in health access and outcomes and it turns out prison is no different.
**There is something uniquely American about the United States' high rate of incarceration and low accessibility of health care.The United States leads the world in incarceration rates (5% of its population) and hosts the largest number of incarcerated individuals; nearly 2.2 million people were incarcerated in the United States in 2020 (Statista, 2021). Philadelphia, PA boasts the highest per capita incarceration rate of the ten largest U.S. cities (Ewing, 2016). Research has been well established that incarcerated populations are more likely to have chronic physical and mental health conditions and poor health outcomes that lasts long after release from prison (Smith, 2013; Ahébée, 2021). Too often the prison industrial complex serves as a provider of mental health services, which might not be so awful if jails and prisons were even remotely designed to be able to manage these challenges. However, we we look at the research we see the opposite. In fact, each year in prison takes two years off an individual’s life expectancy (Patterson, 2013). One study compared the life expectancy of the United States against other high-income democracies and found that from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years if it had not been for mass incarceration (Wildeman, 2016).
Countless studies supports the hypothesis that high recidivism rates may reflect unmet mental health and service needs of individuals and communities (Pantalone et al., 2018).
National Statistics about Mental Illness and Incarceration (NAMI and Prison Policy. Org)
About 2 in 5 people currently incarcerated have a history of mental illness – twice the rate as the average in this country
1 in 4 ppl with SMI have been arrested at some point in their life, leading to over 200 million jail bookings of PwSMI each year
7 in 10 youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition
Nearly 1 in 4 ppl shot and killed by police officers between 2015-2020 had a mental health condition
1 in 4 people experience “serious psychological distress” in jails
66% of ppl incarcerated in federal prisons report not receiving ANY mental health care while incarcerated, number goes up to 74% in state prisons
Suicide is the leading cause of death for people held in local jails
Est. 4000 ppl with SMI are held in solitary confinement inside US prisons
43% and 44% of individuals incarcerated in state prisons and local jails, respectively, have been diagnosed with a mental illness
Over 1 in 4 individuals jailed 3 or more times within a year report having a moderate or serious mental illness
Demographic statistics arent the only ones we should be looking at.
In a 2022 WITF article, a mental health investigative journalist discovered that it was common practice within PA count jails to utilize pepper spray and stun guns against incarcerated individuals experiencing an mental health episode. WIFT investigaters reviewed incarceral records, written by correctional officers, which provided candid details on what led them to use such control measures against individuals in distress. In these records, just 10% of the use of force was used as a response to a prisoner assaulting someone else. Another 10% was due to prisoner threatening staff. The report discovered that far more likely - 1 in 5 - these incidsents occurred because a prisoner was either attempting suicide, hurting htemselves, or threatening self harm. While supporters of these techniques claim they save lives, opponents and human rights advocates argue they are inhumane and ineffective.
So the chicken or the egg? Is it just that the criminal justice system is our best tool to manage mental illness symptoms and this is the best we can hope for? Or do jails and prisons have actual impact on one’s mental health?
Meta-study after meta-study show that incarceration can trigger and even worsen symptoms of mental health, which do not magically disappear once they reenter society. While of course, every individual is different, research shows that incarceration is linked to mood disorders, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, as well as something called Post-Incarceration Syndrome, a condition similar to PTSD. Even in the most humane of prisons, many defining features of incarceration are linked to negative mental health including : disconnection from family, isolation from community, loss of autonomy, boredom, lack of purpose, and unpredictability of surroundings. Other factors detrimental to MH include overcrowding, exposure to various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely the lack of privacy, insecurity about future prospects (work, relationships, etc), and inadequate health services, especially mental health services. And unless you have a loved one incarcerated, it may be easy to forget how far away you are from your family when locked up and the drastic effects it can have. A 2018 study out of the Uni of Georgia found that people incarcerated more than 50 miles from their home community were more likely to experience depression. Another study found a high correlation between overcrowding and prison suicide. This says nothing of the effects it has on the incarcerated individual’s family and community.
Psych-Social Determinants of Health
Negative mental health effects can be experienced even by those without a prior history of mental illness issues and that is due, in part, to what we call the psychosocial determinants of health. The World Health Organization defines the PSDoH as the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age typically issues that go well beyond the scope of traditional (western) health care. “They include factors like socioeconomic status, education, the physical environment, employment, and social support networks, as well as access to healthcare. ”
Obvious incarceration is a negative force on all of these dimensions, but let’s focus on the environment of incarceration.
The constant exposure to boredom and monotony peppered with unpredictable bouts of violence, along with social isolation, poor health care, anticipation of hardship and stigma upon release, and zero rehabilitation will have a psychological effect because the human brain did not evolved to be adaptive to long-term stress with no resolution, which researchers call allostatic load. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events and involves the interaction of different physiological systems at varying degrees of activity. We all know about the "flight-or-fight" response to acute stress, which is good and appropriate because stress hormones in the body in the short term promote adaptation. But when environmental challenges and stresses exceed the individual’s ability to cope, then allostatic overload ensues. In other words, short-term and manageable stress are adaptive for our brains, however it becomes maladaptive in the long term with no reprieve.
Neuroscience research has been very clear that the human brain needs certain conditions in order to thrive: air, water, warmth, sleep, exercise, low stress, healthy diet, and social interactions. Humans evolved to move our bodies and find meaning and belonging via our social interactions. In fact, many now believe that the famous Ancient Greek tragedy plays were an unconscious way for society to collectively heal from the trauma of constant war. However, even if jails and prisons were not inherently violent places, the isolation alone would be enough to cause lasting psychological damage.
To understand how, we have to understand how stress and isolation affects the brain. The brain is the key organ that deals with stress, particularly the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex which can undergo stress-induced structural remodeling when the allostatiac load is overwhelming, such as during the conditions of incarceration. This, in turn, alters behavioral and physiological responses. As an adjunct to pharmaceutical therapy, social and behavioral interventions such as regular physical activity and social support reduce the chronic stress burden and benefit brain and body health and resilience, which are in short supply while incarcerated.
One of the most stressful experiences of incarceration is solitary confinement. The stress of forced isolation can cause permanent damage to one’s brain and personality. Living in solitary confinement is a grueling experience that is can damage the brain after just a few days. A 2000 study found that people were significantly more likely to develop psychiatric disorders while in solitary confinement than while housed in non-solitary units. In solitary confinement, the individual is warehoused in a room smaller than the average parking space, with continuous sensory stimulation (noise, lights), high stress, disrupted sleep, poor diet, and no cognitive enrichment. Meaning that all of the ingredients for a heathy life have been removed. This isolation has long term physical and psychological effects such as increased morbidity and mortality, increased likelihood of depression, withdrawal, aggression, obsessive thoughts, decreased distance vision, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, impaired navigation, deteriorated ability to concentrate, anxiety, worsening pre-existing mental illness, and of course increase recidivism. If we are telling ourselves that prisons exist to decrease crime and recidivism and improve public safety, we have to confront the way the actual outcomes are perpetuating and even creating cycles of harm.
Isolation and forced confinement affect our brains in fours ways: anatomically, biochemically, inflammation, and protective factors. Our brains neurons require stimulation resulting from social interaction, so in forced confinement the size and shape of the dendrites deteriorates (where info enter the neuron). And can impact neurotropic factors that block neuron death, which is critical to the dev, maintained, and repair of the nervous system. Chronic stress and isolation reduced our brains capacity to respond to inflammatory challenges which results in increase in illness resulting in more physical damage. All of this cumulates in decreased neuro/CNS repair in our body’s natural processes, trauma, and aging.
Even non-human animals, when they return to gen pop after isolation, are more aggressive–even with siblings and others they grew up with. We can see this echoed with human beings who are incarcerated.
Beyond the exacerbation and formation of major mood disorders as well as Post-Incarceration Syndrome, exposure to incarceration, especially in the long term, can result in what is called “institutionalized personality traits” which include distrusting others, diff maintaining relationships, diff in decision making, social-sensory disorientation (issues with spatial researching and diff in social interactions), and feelings of social alienation.
Philadelphia is the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated country in the world, with seven out of one thousand citizens behind bars. Approximately three-quarters of the Philadelphia jail population wait six months before getting their day in court (Ewing, 2016).
When surveyed, reentry service advocates and individuals formerly incarcerated at State Road reported mental health, housing, and employment as tied as the most critical gaps to a successful reentry (9.2% each). Close behind were substance abuse/recovery and healthcare access (8.3% each). According to the PCJ, 16% of the folx incarcerated with them have a diagnosed SMI.
I actually conducted my Masters thesis project on the unmet health needs of the individuals incarcerated in the Philadelphia County Jails and upon reentry back into the community. While the results are slightly tangential to this podcast (as it focused on all health needs, not just psychological), there was some research that I wanted to share. I analyzed the zip codes of individuals incarcerated at the PCJ and found that there were six zip codes that made up over ⅓ the population at the jail. In fact, three zip codes (of the six) made up 20% of the entire incarcerated population at PCJ. I then compared these zip codes to a map of Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs) in Philadelphia (put together by the Phila Department of Public Health, publically available online). This comparison showed that 80% of individuals incarcerated at PCJ came from MUA, a statistic corroborated by the PDP.
Philadelphia, as a city, is host to a wealth of some of the best medical providers and hospitals in the country, including Penn and Jefferson, but these valuable assets are not distributed evenly across the city. The best-served zip codes in Philadelphia have ten times as many primary care physicians within a short drive than in underserved areas. The same report commissioned by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health commissioned found that the ratio of patients to primary care providers within a short drive is about 900-to-1 citywide; but in the lesser-served areas, it’s almost 3,000-to-1 (Beeler, 2015).
What’s more frustrating, is that the data suggests that the city has enough primary care providers to serve the city’s population size, however, they are not distributed equitably across the city (Beeler, 2015). It becomes very apparent very quickly, the one’s chances of experiencing incarceration and the exacerbation of mental illness increases drastically just by the zip code in which you were born.
We often think of incarceration as an experience with a beginning and an end, however when we take a look at the research we can clearly see that effects of incarceration on individuals physical and mental health last long after they’ve walked through the prison gates and back into society. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that not only do prisons not keep us safe, but that Incarceration is not an acceptable experience in terms of neurological development, resolving traumatic experiences, promoting pro-social behavior, or ensuring one’s human rights.