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Madeleine Larson / Staff Photographer for Spectator

Columbia Prison Divest has been raising awareness about mass incarceration on campus.

When I describe the need for treatment instead of punishment for the mentally ill and substance dependent, I split into two Loxleys. One inhabits the real world and lists reasons why he belongs in treatment facilities as opposed to correctional ones; another is trapped in a time-warp, re-experiencing the days and weeks he went missing, that time he abandoned us in Virginia, and the endless fights and screams and broken glass. Every time I say I believe in treatment over punishment, I feel like a liar because, to me, his is the face of drug addiction. And few things would please me more than to see him waste away in the hells that we call “correctional facilities.” A little dark, I know, but that’s what having a loved one addicted to drugs will do to you.

I blinded myself by escaping into the worlds of Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter. I blocked my ears by playing five instruments. And I kept silent by talking about everything except what mattered most. As I grew older and began to understand that substance abuse was to blame, I diverted my angst into a fascination with the human brain. Luckily, I was able to convert this negative into a few positives.

Understanding drug addiction and the importance of careful drug management to prevent other families from experiencing the same turmoil as mine did is a major reason I’m pursuing a career in medicine. Focusing on the impact that drugs, brain injuries, and mental illnesses can have on what makes us who we are—like the way we experience emotions—is what really drives me, because it’s intertwined with incarceration.

Because of what marginalized populations are supposed to be—kept out of sight—most media outlets show a marathon of celebrity nip-slips and botched plastic surgeries before saying a word about incarceration reform. Imagine my surprise upon seeing Help, Not Incarceration on the front page of the Epoch Times in one of those newspaper stands on 116th St. and Broadway. I stopped in my tracks and stared in disbelief—first at the headline and then at the fact that I was actually about to pick up a real-life newspaper. (The last time I touched a newspaper was to make a papier mâché volcano for my sixth-grade project on the Soufrière Hills volcano in Montserrat.) Just weeks before my 21st birthday, I’ve finally discovered that newspapers can be both fun and informative. Also, they pretty much triple in size once you open them, so they make a great barrier from social interaction in case you’re ever trying to walk from Lerner to the Northwest Corner building without donating to three bake sales or being lured into the arms of Jesus Christ by the joyful voices of Jubilation!

Anyway, the article was fascinating!  I don’t want to unnecessarily prolong your procrastination by writing a full summary, but there are some details worth repeating: The 1.26 million mentally ill adults the Department of Justice holds in jails and prisons; the health care director’s experience seeing people released from jail and arrested the very same day, showing that simply arresting the mentally ill and substance-dependent can be utterly futile when their volition and self-control is significantly compromised; the alternatives to conventional arrest that send the mentally ill to treatment centers with a 70 percent success rate; how the success of these treatment centers saved a single county $10 million in one year.

Just think about that for a moment. By opting to give the mentally ill and substance-dependent the help they need—as opposed to relegating them to years of suffering in the criminal system and a lifetime of state-sanctioned discrimination, we could save millions of lives. By providing incarceration alternatives for drug offenders—particularly non-violent ones—Texas saved nearly $450 million in one year. Those savings may have been spent on guns, boots, and steel for that ridiculous fence, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Here in the Big Apple, one alternative-to-incarceration program saved the city over $7,000 for each person that was treated instead of sent to jail.

Unfortunately, deep misunderstanding of drug addiction still hampers the economic and societal benefits of programs that prioritize treatment over punishment for nonviolent drug offenders in New York City. While many in the field understand relapsing as an often inevitable stage during recovery, New York City judges often send patients that have relapsed to state prisons or give what Bronx Defenders Managing Director of Social Work Elizabeth Keeney calls “an impossibly short window of opportunity to get clean”.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio began an initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill and substance-dependent people in city jails, but how far is he willing to go?  Will Mayor de Blasio train the NYPD in de-escalation techniques and instruct them to bring the substance-dependent and mentally ill to treatment centers instead of hospitals, as they do in San Antonio? Or will his progressive approach end with an impotent task force and empty words?

Through meaningful reform, we can create a system that allows communities to identify people in need of help and provide treatment instead of kicking them into a cell while they’re down. Someday soon, I will be able to say that without feeling dishonest because already, I know that the bad memories weren’t his fault. Most of me knows that the destructive behavior arose from an illness that needed treatment; I wrote this article as a public statement of forgiveness and hope. I want to loosen the death grip on my experiences to stand strong for a change that I believe will help families from coast to coast—and would have helped mine.

I understand why anyone would want to throw the book (or perhaps something sharper) at the mentally ill and substance-dependent out of vengeance for the pain their actions cause. But I hope that logic will override our need for retribution so that both parties can get the help and closure they need.

Loxley Bennett is a Columbia College senior majoring in neuroscience. He is a former student services representative for Columbia College Student Council. Bagels and Lox runs alternate Fridays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Prison mass incarceration mental illness substance abuse
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