prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

the art forger

the art forgerI heard about The Art Forger through Quail Ridge Books, the independent bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., where I used to live. I still get the store’s weekly emails, which have great book recommendations from the owner and its staff, as well as from other independent booksellers. I go back and spend too much money whenever I’m in Raleigh (which is sadly not too much these days, since my aunt and uncle moved away).

The book was published by Algonquin, a local company whose books Quail Ridge often highlights. The review caught my eye because the story, while fictional, is based around the Gardner heist.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers bound and gagged security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and made off with 13 works of art that are now worth more than $500 million. More than 20 years later, none has been recovered, and the investigation had pretty much hit a dead end. In the last six months, however, the FBI has announced that it knows the thieves’ identities and has renewed its publicity about the case in an attempt to get leads on the artwork.

I visited the Gardner during my first trip to Boston with my mom more than 10 years ago, and I was absolutely captivated by it. The eponymous owner was an art collector in the late 19th and early 20th century, and she built the museum, meant to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace, in order to house her collection. Her will stipulated that the art was to remain as she had arranged it (which was not at all as a professional curator would today); after the theft, the rule was interpreted to stand, so empty frames hang in their places as a constant reminder of the crime.

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

The poignancy of the loss, combined with the eccentricity of the space and its founder, made me a little obsessed with the museum, and after my visit I read three or four books about the heist. Naturally I had to read this one, too.

It took me less than 24 hours (of course, it was Shabbat, so I didn’t have my usual phone/computer/Netflix distractions): It’s quite the page-turner — if a little hard-boiled and at times downright cheesy.

Because of a mistake in her past involving a former lover and fellow artist, Claire Roth is persona non grata in the Boston art world when she is approached by a local gallery owner to forge a painting — a Degas, and one of the masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum. Eager for her reputation’s rehabilitation, Claire reluctantly agrees in exchange for her own show at the gallery and the promise that the original painting will be returned to the museum where it belongs (the forgery will be sold as the original to an unscrupulous collector). In the process, though, she begins to suspect that the original Degas may itself be a forgery . . . and so the fun begins.

Part of the fun for me was that the story takes place in Boston, so I actually knew where most of the (fictionalized) action takes place. Plus, Claire volunteers teaching art at a juvenile facility — so my favorite topic of criminal justice policy gets a little shout-out — but this is less character development than plot device.

But even non-Bostonians and those who aren’t fascinated by the heist or by crime/criminal justice will likely enjoy this quick read. Check it out from your local public library!

marriage

Today began and ended with my reflecting on marriage. It also began with sad tears and ended with happy ones.

I am sorry to say that this morning I had to go to D.C. police (MPD) headquarters. My husband had his wallet and phone stolen from a gym locker last month, and the police report on the incident was the last document I needed to complete our renter’s insurance claim. The insurance company had requested the report from MPD but naturally had not yet received it three weeks later. The complainant (or the complainant’s spouse) can request the report for free — but only in person! — so I headed to Judiciary Square after breakfast. I expected the process to be at least somewhat trying — as is almost all interaction with District bureaucracy.

It started with the metal detector. “You have cuticle clippers in your purse,” the guy running the x-ray machine tells me. “Where are you going?” When I tell him I need a copy of a police report, he non sequiturs, “Please take the clippers out of the building.” (I have no idea why he asked me what I was doing in the building, because it sure didn’t seem to make a difference to him.)

“I have to leave them outside?” I ask, confused. “I didn’t say that,” he responds. “You have to take them out of the building.”

Sighing, I take the offending object outside and place it on a concrete window ledge. I come back inside and repeat the security drill. This time (but why wasn’t it last time as well?) it’s a pair of tweezers. “Take them outside the building,” he repeats.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This time, it’s my coin purse. He tells me to just hold on to it as I walk through the metal detector, which of course goes off. I point out the coin purse in my hand to the other security person, who wands me anyway. The wand beeps near my jacket pocket: my office keys, which haven’t caused the metal detector to go off during the previous three times I’ve already been through it. “Why did you leave those in your pocket?” she demands. Flustered, I stammer that I must have forgotten about them. She motions me back again. I put the keys in the purse and try again. This time she wants to know why I’m holding my coin purse. “Because he told me to,” I almost scream in frustration.

All of this would merely be Kafkaesque, but I’m retelling it to underline the fact that I was in no mood for bullshit when I got to the Public Documents Unit. The trouble begins when the woman returns with copy of the report she’s retrieved. “I need to see your ID, because your name isn’t on the report.” I explain that I wasn’t involved in the incident and hand her my driver’s license. She hands it back to me: “I need to see something with your married name.”

Feeling the heat rising, I force myself to say calmly, “I don’t have a ‘married name.’ I didn’t change my name when I got married. I am telling you he’s my husband; the address on my license is the same as his on the report, and I am wearing a wedding ring.”

“Well, I’m wearing a wedding ring, and my husband’s dead.” (Yes. She actually said that.) She continues, “I can’t believe you don’t have something with his name.” We go back and forth in this vein until she finally thrusts the report at me and peevishly informs me, “You just got a free report.”

“Yes,” I reply. “The free report that I’m entitled to as the complainant’s spouse!” I’m so angry at this point I am shaking. “So you say,” she ends.

I’m crying before I’ve gotten on the elevator, kicking myself for letting her get to me and for not anticipating something like this. The thought did flash through my brain as I was looking online for how to get a police report: It’s free for a spouse . . . I wonder how that is verified? (There is absolutely nothing on that page about needing proof of marriage or what that would entail.) As far as I can tell, the Public Documents Unit at MPD is “verifying” marriage through last names.

Not only is this “policy” hopelessly old-fashioned (I can’t believe I’m the first spouse with a different last name to request a copy of a police report), it’s only going to become more problematic as same-sex married couples (who choose to take each other’s names even less than straight people do) become victims of crime. So MPD is either going to have to come up with a way to easily verify marriage, or they’re just going to have to take our word for it. The kicker to all of this is that the fee for police report for a third party is $3. The woman who works in this office gave me a hard time over three dollars.

I was surprised this hurt so much, and I don’t cry easily. In retrospect I know it bothered me because I have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy. (And I choose these words in particular because my therapist has said exactly this to me: “Salem, you have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy.”) And this is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic policy par excellence. Usually I just get annoyed or frustrated with this type of stupid inflexibility, not hurt. But this felt like an attack on my personal choices — and on my commitment to my marriage. It devastated me that someone would doubt that I was married solely because my spouse and I don’t share a last name.

The day ended better than it began, though. From one of my least favorite D.C. institutions to one of my favorite: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I went to the 6th & the City Friday night services because my friend Julia would be there on her last night in D.C. before moving to L.A., and my friend Annie was celebrating her aufruf.

Kabbalat Shabbat services always make me feel better, and sitting in the pew — listening to Rabbi Shira bless Annie and Marc, singing siman tov and mazel tov, watching everyone dance around the sanctuary, and throwing candy — I was so grateful to be a part of tradition that celebrates marriage. There was no one in that crowded room who thought any less of my marriage because my husband and I have different last names (least of all the rabbi, who also does not share a name with her husband). My heart was full, and I was happy to be affirmed, happy for Annie and Marc, happy to be Jewish, back in the space where I got married. Hare ata mekudeshet li betaba’ at zo k’dat Moshe v’ Yisrael . . .

the test

I walk to an office building in downtown D.C. early on a weekend morning. I take the elevator to the second floor and enter a room where lots of other people are sitting on chairs, waiting. I show my ID to check in; the man at the desk scrutinizes both me and and the picture on my driver’s license, literally squinting and looking between both several times.

what my cursive looks like

Then he hands me a confidentiality agreement I’m meant to sign — but not before I write, in cursive, the three-sentence statement at the bottom of the page. I haven’t written in script since third grade, so I anticipate that this may be the most challenging part of my day. I began the laborious task of writing with loops and linking letters together; I can’t even get the sentences to fit in the space prescribed, and I am barely halfway through when he asks if I’m ready to move to the next step.

When I finally finish what cannot seem like an adult’s rendering of the statement, I’m directed first to put all of my belongings into a locker and then to proceed to the next room with only my ID and the key to the locker. I sit down in front of another man, who again checks my ID — and then asks me to stand up so he can wand me. He directs me to lift up my shirt so that he can see my waistline, then to pull out all of my pockets — why did I choose to wear cargo pants today? — so that he can verify that they are empty. He warns me not to make any unusual movements once I’m in the next room, and not to take off my sweatshirt. I begin to worry about whether it’s going to be hot in the next room.

He hands me back my ID, points to the line on the paper to sign in, and hands me approved pencil and paper. I enter the next room and am led to my seat by yet another staff member. I leave the room three times and return twice during my four-and-a-half hours inside, and each time I go through the same process of ID check, signing in and out, wanding, and pocket inspection. I’m also reminded that accessing my cell phone during these breaks will lead to my being kicked out of the facility. Finally, while I’m sitting in my cubicle, the innermost room staff periodically walks by to adjust the angle of the camera that is trained on various parts of the room.

And this is how you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in the U.S. today.

Obviously I am terribly naive, because this shocks me. It beggars my belief that anyone would cheat on an admissions test, even as I question its value as a predictor of success in graduate school. But apparently all of this rigamarole is the logical response to past scam attempts, so I have to concede that it’s necessary.

You may be asking, “What relevance do analyses of your writing, verbal reasoning, and high-school math abilities have to do with rabbinical schools, especially since applications to those institutions are compromised principally of multiple essays?” And the answer clearly is, “Very little if at all.” Two of the schools I’m applying to require the GRE, but one does not; the fellowship I’d like to get only requires it if the school does. I don’t know what accounts for the difference between otherwise fairly similar schools.

I prepared for the exam in the simplest and cheapest way possible: I worked my way through the official GRE book published by the Education Testing Service. I’m guessing that the decision to admit or not admit me to rabbinical school will not hinge on my GRE scores; it seems most likely to me that it’s some kind of idiot check, which is still odd because it’s not like these schools haven’t already met everyone who is applying. I’ve certainly talked at length with the admissions directors of all three schools.

But I am a neurotic student, and I hate taking tests that I can’t fully prepare for. I found myself disagreeing with the “correct” answers of more than one “verbal reasoning” question and was annoyed that I won’t be given the chance to argue my point.

what quantitative reasoning looks like

The math drove me even crazier. I actually like math, and in high school, I was pretty good at it: I got a 5 on the AB Calculus exam. In college, I considered double majoring in math and Classics. So I was frustrated by my complete inability to figure out how to proceed on many “quantitative reasoning” problems. The book takes what in my mind is a puzzling attitude to this. First, I was never able to discern a pattern for the questions — but the book’s explanations were always of the sort, “Of course, it’s clear that you should do x  approach (and obvious from first glance that y approach is not going to work).” And there was no big-picture guidance whatsoever about how to recognize which approach — solving the equation, plugging in numbers, estimating, etc. — would be best. Maybe there are students who just get math — in the way I just get verbal reasoning — for whom this is not a problem. Ultimately, all I was able to do was to tell myself that it simply wasn’t worth the time it would take to get really good at the math section. Math, I’m guessing, is not going to be a large part of my rabbinate.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,006 other followers