Crazy in America

“A national scandal” is the coined phrase Ms. Pfeiffer, an investigative reporter, uses to describe mentally ill persons and their shockingly tragic encounters with the criminal justice system. In this heartrending book she meticulously documents the stories of six mentally ill individuals who came into contact with the criminal justice system because of aberrant psychotic behaviors related to their illnesses and suffered tragic experiences in jails and prisons. This is the horrific story of how incarcerated mentally ill human beings are often subjected to dehumanizing experiences. It is a documentation of human beings in a system with “too little mental health care” and a system wherein “people are expendable in a society that’s good at locking people up but not so good at setting them free.”

This is the story of Shayne, who at the age of fourteen was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. From that point on, she experienced extreme coping difficulties and over the years was hospitalized twenty-five times as well as spending time in prison. Much of her time in prison was spent in “the hole” because of her inability to follow prison rules. She successfully pulled out one of her eyeballs; two years later she succeeded in pulling out the other eyeball, completely blinding herself.

This is also the story of Luke, diagnosed as bipolar and addicted to drugs at a young age. Depression was also a part of his life. After being incarcerated for drug possession Luke’s difficulty with coping skills escalated. He became increasingly emotionally frantic until, regrettably in desperation, he died from suicide.

This is the story of Joseph who had stolen several cars and ended up in a youth correctional facility where he could not successfully cope. After spending two months in a lockdown situation in a small cell with no TV, no family visits, no exercise, no personal possessions, no mental health services the severely distraught Joseph became another tragic statistic when he died from suicide at the age of eighteen.

Crazy in America is an intense, emotionally-draining portrayal of the lost lives of mentally ill individuals within a system that failed them, a system that failed to understand their illnesses and therefore failed to effectively treat them. The individuals are but a few of many that Ms. Pfeiffer could have portrayed. As the author states, “The mass of imprisoned humanity includes at least three hundred thousand people with mental illness.” This book adds to the growing list of books addressing the ever increasing social problem of mental illness and incarceration.

The author is a strong advocate for change and has written numerous articles on incarcerated mentally ill persons. She clarifies her meaning of the word crazy. She does not use it to refer to mentally ill individuals; she uses it to describe what she says is the crazy way society reacts toward mentally ill individuals. Ms. Pfeiffer appropriately and fittingly concludes her book by stating, “America needs to try again to heal its ills and to help them heal themselves, with the wisdom of history and the knowledge that the people we will help, the people we will heal, will be ourselves.”