Broken Criminal Justice System Is Highlighted at March for Mental Health Dignity

There was a lot said, shouted, chanted and sung at the March for Mental Health Dignity on the National Mall on August 24 about the rights of individuals with mental health conditions -- of whom I am one.

The march -- which was sponsored and supported by a list of advocacy organizations as long as your arm -- had two basic demands: change in policies that obstruct recovery from mental health conditions, and change in society's treatment of individuals who have such conditions. Destination: Dignity.

Under this broad umbrella, two objectives stand out for me: an end to unconscionable levels of incarceration, and an end to the criminalization of mental health and substance use conditions.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. And more than half of them have a mental health problem, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

People like us -- that is, people who live with mental health challenges--are less likely to be released on bail, and we have longer jail and prison terms. Even when we are released, we are more likely to incur technical probation violations.

But, worse, we often become targets while incarcerated. Human Rights Watch recently reported that prisoners with mental health conditions are routinely physically abused by guards.

Two appalling examples of what happens to us in the criminal injustice system are what happened to Samuel Harrell and Kalief Browder.

On April 21, at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York State, Samuel Harrell, a 30-year-old man who had a mental health condition, was reportedly kicked and punched, and thrown or dragged down the stairs to his death, by as many as 20 officers. No officers have been disciplined in connection with his death. Instead, witnesses have been threatened with violence for speaking out.

A second tragic example is Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years in New York City's notorious Rikers Island without being convicted. In jail, he tried to kill himself at least six times. He was released in 2013 when the charges against him were dropped. After his release, every day was a struggle, his attorney later said. On June 6, at the age of 22, he died by suicide.

What can we do to stop such tragedies? To start with, we can support advocacy organizations that are working on these issues.

One organization that focuses specifically on prisoners with mental health conditions is SAMHSA's GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation.

Another great organization is Just Leadership USA, which is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by the year 2030, while reducing crime. Just Leadership USA was founded by Glenn E. Martin, who spent six years in the New York State prison system before turning his life around and vowing to help others. Among Just Leadership's many supporters are the Ford Foundation and the David Rockefeller Fund. I am proud to be a member.

The criminal justice system is broken, and we need to help the unfortunate individuals -- with or without a mental health condition -- who have fallen into its clutches. As Angela Davis said, "I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change; I am changing the things I cannot accept."