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Call To Mind: Youth incarceration and mental health

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Call To Mind: Youth Incarceration and Mental Health was a live virtual discussion hosted by WUWM in partnership with Call To Mind. The two panels for the event focused on how being incarcerated impacts the mental health of young people and what’s being done to address it both inside the facilities and upon returning to the community.

The number of young people incarcerated in the United States has been cut in half since 2007. Most recent national data from 2017 shows that more than 43,500 juveniles across the United States were in some sort of confinement setting, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working to minimize imprisonment.

Despite these dropping rates, the United States still incarcerates more young people than any other country. In addition, racial disparities persist. In every state, Black kids are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white kids. American Indian kids are three times more likely compared to white kids and Latino/a kids are 42% more likely to be incarcerated than white kids.

Studies have shown that 70% of incarcerated children have a diagnosable mental health condition, but in Wisconsin's Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile correctional facility it is much higher. According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, as of July 2021, 93% of the youth housed at this juvenile correctional facility have a mental health condition. Of those youth, 25% have a serious illness.

On Oct. 20 WUWM hosted a live virtual discussion in conjunction with Well Beings and Call to Mind, American Public Media’s initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. The discussion featured two panels that focused on how being incarcerated impacts the mental health of young people and what’s being done to address it both inside the facilities and upon returning to the community.

Panelists featured in the event include: Roy Rogers with the Wisconsin Alliance for Youth Justice; Amanda Smit, program coordinator at Project RETURN; Sharlen Moore, the executive director of Urban Underground; Dr. Henry Boeh, a licensed psychologist and certified Dialectical Behavioral Therapy clinician working at the Milwaukee County Secure Juvenile Detention Center; and Clem Richardson, a substance use counselor with Project RETURN.

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Rogers was incarcerated in an adult prison at age 16, and he recounted his experience being in prison as a young adult and experiencing mental health challenges.

"It was traumatic. I was a kid in an adult environment — an adult environment that's pretty violent. I've seen a lot of this violent behavior being a juvenile, in what they call a double max prison," Rogers says. "We [young adults] were not segregated from the rest of the adult population; there was no special attention given us."

Counselor Richardson, who was also incarcerated at age 16 during the 80's, says he experienced depression, anger, and dirty living conditions during the peak of the crack epidemic and comes from a family of 16 — which caused him to experience a myriad of issues.

At 13 years old, Richardson started selling marijuana and at 15 he started selling cocaine. By the time he was 21 he was selling crack.

"My experience was violent and I was definitely being aggressive," he says. "I didn't want to get taken advantage of and dealing with the anxiety, dealing with the [poor] conditions of living — those conditions were really horrific back in the 80's."

Dialectical Behavioral Therapist Dr. Boeh, says his therapy work with youth in prison aims to help them cope with emotions in a more effective way. For the past year, Boeh has worked with Running Rebels to design a program to help youth understand their mental heath concerns.

"We are trying to set up a whole therapy program designed to help the youth in detention, find new [and] more effective ways to cope with big emotions [and] overall have more control over the direction their life is taking," he explains.

Smit who's a program coordinator at Project RETURN, says Richardson and Rodgers experience is proof that prison is more punishment than rehabilitation. She notes that other issues that plague youth incarceration is a misdiagnosis of mental health and she's calling on the community to stop criminalizing mental illness.

"Even in the news, you see all these people saying, 'I committed it because of mental illness,' but do you see any people of color using that diagnosis? No, they just criminalize them right away. And so that's really where the disconnect is there. Why are you criminalizing this person for their mental health, but not criminalizing this other person?," Smit asked.

To adequately address mental health the courts need to offer mental health screenings before trail according to Smit. Opening beds and spaces in mental health facilities can also address this issue. Additionally, Rodgers says giving technology to inmates so they can understand their mental health would benefit them as well.

"We have technology that the men and women incarcerated have access to, we need to get some mental health and mental wellness apps on those tablets, so that individuals can be informed what mental health wellness looks like and resource apps on there to show them how to reach out in the event that they do not feel comfortable with dealing with the staff that is around them," he says.

Moore with Urban Underground says that while programs like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a good start, communities should be more proactive than reactive.

"We need to do a lot more. So when we talk about DBT skills, we shouldn't be providing that when young people are incarcerated or when adults get to this incarcerated setting," she notes. "We should be talking about these sorts of skill sets when young people are in kindergarten, when they're in elementary school — those are the things that will live with them."

At the heart of this conversation, Moore says that these issues speak to the greater problems that Milwaukee is experiencing. She says that young people are the ones that have suffered the most because they grow up to be impacted adults.

"When we talk about systemic structures that are in place, and are designed in a way that people of color in communities have been driven into particular areas that have exacerbated poverty, mental health [concerns], inequitable educational systems, and [a lack of] health care," says Moore.

Richardson says that 63% of youth and adults that get out of prison return to the system within three years. Many parents unknowingly teach their children poor coping skills, and he says that statistics like these are proof that many youth lack the coping skills to stop the prison cycle.

"Youth don't know how to act and stay cool, calm and collected. So, [they] usually come right back to prison. Not just one time — two or three times. I agree with prevention, but we need to have it for the youth and the adult sector, too," Richardson notes.

To remedy this challenge, the panel unanimously agreed that support should be given to family and community relationships. They all urge the city of Milwaukee to take a pause, ask what needs to be done, and analyze where resources should be reallocated. The panelists acknowledge that it's a lot of work, but they all believe that the city can collectively get there.

"We have to find a way to bring the family into the fold," adds Richardson. "Even though the father might not be in the home, you got a lot of good mothers out there, you got a lot of single fathers raising their kids too. Because of the dynamic that's happening in our community, we need all hands on deck, even the parents to get involved."

Although it's just the beginning stages of implementing DBT, Boeh says that he's seen a significant change in the participants that have gone through the program, noting it only takes a few months for youth to start using the new coping resources they are taught.

"They [incarcerated youth] just start demonstrating these new behaviors, and you see it decreasing fights, restrictions, you see it help, and you see them kind of feel a sense of mastery — like, 'Wow, I just prevented that situation from going south quickly,'" he says.

To find resources that support youth mental health you can visit the Milwaukee Mental Health Resource Toolkit. To learn more and hear the full discussion, watch the full Call To Mind Live: Youth Incarceration and Mental Health program below:

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