Unrelenting: Mental Illness in Prison

incarceration, imprisonment, mental health in prison, mental illness in prison, California State

After 35 years of incarceration, Spoon Jackson says, “I have never adjusted to being caged.”

It is almost impossible for any human being to be incarcerated ten or more years and not have some kind of mental health problems. Prison life is not a natural or healthy environment, particularly inside California prisons.

The soul, heart, mental, and spiritual torture are often unrelenting. Pain unending for the prisoner and his family and friends. Some short term mental health dilemmas can be handled in the heart or soul through self-help meditative and communication groups, through letter-writing and art programs. Sometimes outside help is required, especially if one is suffering through long lockdowns or isolation. These long lock-downs caused me some depression, sadness, and deep pain. The lockdowns only illuminated my stress, especially after 35 years of incarceration and mostly good programming.

Despite the 35 years, I have never adjusted to being caged. During the last long lockdown, I missed visits from Sweden and lost my Swedish girlfriend. I missed playing my native flute and teaching my prose and poetry classes.

I had not been on such a long lockdown in decades. This 9 month lockdown came almost on the heels of a 4 month lockdown. These super-modern, race-based, lockdowns are ridiculous and unjust and dampened my heart and spirit some.

I needed to get away and have time to myself to contemplate my prison future. I was stressed out and burnt out on these race-based lockdowns. My soul and heart needed some alone time to heal. So, instead of hurting myself or others, I went to the hole on a mental health break and to, hopefully, be transferred to an institution not prone to lockdowns.

I was sent to the stand-alone hole with its dirty skyline and nothing else. No books except the bible, if you knew to ask for it. The cell a cave structure that looked like the cages the Quakers created in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia which opened in 1829 and closed in the 1970s.

I was in the hole for only a little while, and when I went back to the mainline yard, the lockdown had been lifted. But only for a moment. The next day we were back on the race-based lockdown.

I had decided to check out the mental health department, but after six months waiting, I saw the psych for 10 minutes total. Like the health care people, the mental health department here seems to be more concerned with custody issues than with a prisoner’s mental state. The mental health program at New Folsom is a joke, and they don’t bother to hide that fact, especially when there is a lockdown. They have the nerve to come and talk with you at your cell door where there is no privacy.

After 35 years I’ve developed my own ways of dealing with sadness and depression, but I am open to new ideas. I like to think we all have our own keys to our hearts and souls—sanity and insanity. Yet I know one must be as open as the sky and a forever student in life during the most trying times.


First published in the SJRA Advocate March 2013Reprinted on the Spoon Jackson Realness Network with permission of Barbara Brooks, SJRA Advocate monthly prison newsletter. Reprinted on The Good Men Project by permission.

Read more from Spoon Jackson in Poet Behind Bars on The Good Life.

Image credit: Dusty J/Flickr

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About Spoon Jackson

Poet/writer/artist/teacher. In prison since 1977. I had two books published in 2010 “Longer Ago Poems by Spoon Jackson” and “By Heart Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives”, a double memoir by Judith Tannenbaum and me. I've been featured in films, plays, articles, books and music suites. I've found my niche in life despite being in prison for over 35 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Write to me! Address on the blog: Spoon Jackson Realness Network.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Thirty-five years is a long time for practically any crime but murder. Presuming it was murder, has anybody asked how the family is getting along?

  2. Wow. So painful, yet so beautiful.
    I was born in 1977. Spoon has been in prison for as long as I’ve been alive. He is more free – in heart, mind and spirit – than most people.


  1. […] After 35 years of incarceration, Spoon Jackson says, "I have never adjusted to being caged."  […]

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