We might have been crazy, and they certainly said that about us, though they said that about all the youth. Every child who came to prison was at least regularly seen by the psychiatrists, which really is a good thing. If you’re going to throw a boy into a maximum-security adult prison, you should periodically check on his mental well-being. And if for some reason he’s sad or depressed or angry all the time, then they can prescribe him some pills and send him back to his grey, beige and black concrete-and-steel cells.
Steve and I started in juvenile detention, where prescription pads go to multiply. The juvenile detention facility I was at in Oakland County sought out to drug any child facing adult prosecution, or even any child who was unruly. A fight would usually get you a mega-dose of Thorzine injected into your ass and then you would be thrown naked into an empty concrete room devoid of even a mattress, blanket, or even usually a toilet. If you seemed sad or angry about being locked up at eleven, twelve, or fifteen years old, you were immediately referred to the psychiatrist. If you were accused of a mere serious offense, they actively encouraged you to get on medication. It was the only way they seemed to know how to deal with you. It was easy from there to get more and more, whether on your own initiative or theirs.
I resisted at first. I had never done any drugs before in the fifteen years I had been alive on the outside. The only “high” I had ever known was from the few times I had drunk alcohol. Steve had never even done so much as that. I succumbed to the promise of being able to sleep away my days with a warm amnesiac euphoria at nights so wonderfully unlike I had ever felt, that in a fucked up way, I considered those moments to be the happiest I had ever been up until then. In another time and another place, Steve believed the Prozac the doctor wanted to prescribe him would fix the changing moods he felt – which had led to his incarceration – related to the extreme abuse he suffered at home.
After we were sentenced and transferred out of county jail and into adult prison, Steve – with a sentence of Life with the Possibility of Parole (though not a good possibility as no juvenile ever sentenced as such has actually received parole in Michigan) – and me with 25-37 years, our psychiatric fates were sealed. Upon arriving at the state’s processing prison facility in Jackson, I was given the diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder and was given new medications. The curious thing was that this occurred before I was seen by any psychiatrist or doctor.
I was given a new prescription of 200 mg. of the antipsychotic Seroquil and the anti-depressant Celexa just a couple hours after the county jail I’d just left had given me my entire day’s worth of previous drugs : 4 mg of Xanax, 4 mg of Lunesta, and 20 mg of Lexapro. Without a doctor’s supervision, I nearly passed out from the interactions of all these medications and their extreme sedative effects, while standing in a room full of adult convicts. As I was struggling to remain conscious, they snapped my intake photo, recording the look of despair and drug overdose on my 16-year old face that would be my identification picture for years.
Steve had his Prozac level raised as well in a similar manner.
We both eventually ended up at the facility for “Youthful Adults” in Michigan. The Thumb Facility is by far the nicest prison in the state, with the most professional staff of any prison.
Still, the two units where we were held were maximum security units that formerly housed some of the state’s most violent and dangerous offenders. When the bulletproof sliding doors slammed behind you in P unit, looking through the barred windows in E, or staring at the manned gun tower on the yard along with the double rows of razor-wire lined fencing, there was no doubt to any of the children ages 13-18 years old that we were in real prison.
But how do you deal with children in a secure, confined setting? Do you give them a little leeway, a little extra freedom to run around or make mistakes, as they still are (chronologically, at least) children? Rowdy and prone to fighting by nature (especially the ones who’ve been abused, which is most), do you put your thumbs down on them, containing them in their rooms for much of the day to prevent them from hurting one another? What do you do with the developmentally disabled, the physically disabled, the mentally disabled, the emotionally disabled? What can you do?
A couple decades ago, most of the kids with shorter sentences would have been treated as the juveniles they were in a secure juvenile detention facility, not an adult prison. Many of the mentally ill children would have been treated in Michigan’s formerly vast mental health system, considered one of the best in the world from the 1920’s to the 1970s. But the state, in the 1990’s, eliminated both these options by dismantling most of the juvenile treatment options and the mental institutions that had, among other things, revolutionized the treatment of schizophrenia, gave us the polio vaccine, and helped lead to the capture of the Mad Bomber in New York. After this gutting, Michigan then started incarcerating her children in her adult prisons at a higher rate than any other state or country in the world.
So we came to prison. Sentenced to be kept in place, the only options for us are to glue ourselves down, or for them to use a nail or a screw. If we act out too much or commit assaults, the only option the prison has is to hammer us in solitary confinement. If we act strangely or depressed or bear the stigma of having seen a psychiatrist before, we get referred to the prison psychiatrist. Once referred to the psych, chances are we’ll be encouraged, prodded, maybe even threatened, to ingest medication. And once we’re taking those medications, it’s not easy if to get off them and reclaim our sanity, without a fight.
Some kids in adult prisons were heavily medicated when they arrived. Kevin DeMott had schizophrenia. They played with his meds while he was locked up — what worked, what didn’t, what was covered by their insurance. He left The Thumb [a Michigan Correctional Facility with separate housing for juveniles] where I knew him, to a regular adult prison. Next time I saw him was on the front section of The Detroit Free Press, strapped almost naked to a gurney.
They said that Nick had bipolar disorder because he tried to kill himself when he was first arrested for shooting at a man who had tried to molest his sister. Actually, Bipolar Disorder was the most common diagnosis given, and the treatment was mostly medication: Wellbutrin and one of the anti-psychotic heavy-tranquilizers like Seroquil, Risperdal, or Thorzine. Darrin definitely had the disorders and I’m quite sure Ruble, Mike, and Spence did too. But Nick didn’t, and neither did Alex. I think that Tommy, Jeff, and Jerry just liked the drugs—whether it was the buzz or the ease of sleep or the fact they seemed to make life go by faster. Somewhere in that spectrum is why I got on them. It was easy to get them… but not so easy to get off them.
When Steve decided that the Prozac he was taking wasn’t the solution because it only made him jittery, he told the psychiatrist during his monthly meeting that he wanted to get off of it. So the psychiatrist did what any prison psychiatrist would do—he told Steve that he felt the Prozac level was in fact too low and that he was going to double Steve’s medications instead. When Steve complained, he was told to stop being argumentative and manipulative and to leave. His medication was doubled at the next med call, and when he refused to take it, he was threatened – told that he would be thrown in the Hole [solitary confinement] if he continued.
The Hole, or segregation, has an especially rough effect on juveniles. While it is sometimes the only option available for assaultive youth, solitary confinement is harrowing for very socially vulnerable youth, who rely on peers for identity and psychological support and comfort. It exacerbates psychological conditions in any age group, but youth in solitary are even more prone to feelings of hopelessness and abandonment, as well as suicidal thoughts.
When I was in Jackson prison after having just been sentenced to more time than I had been alive, segregated from other inmates with no one else to talk to or even look at, I started pulling my blanket tight against my back or wrap my arms around a bunched up sheet to imagine being held or having someone hold me in order not to break into pieces.
Solitary confinement separates us from what makes us human so when it takes up a greater proportion of one’s life, as it does for younger inmates, it’s more damaging. Two weeks to a fifteen year old feels like two months and may be just as damaging; two months may feel like a year.
The heavy dose of the anti-psychotic tranquilizer Seroquil (which is never supposed to be prescribed to children) helped me get through solitary as well, but only by doping me up enough that I slept through most of it. The anti-depressant I was prescribed curiously failed to elevate my mood or make me euthymic. I survived those initial worst days by warping my mind to believe in imaginary things, imaginary touch, imaginary love.
Eventually though, once I was out of solitary and settled into the regular general population, I began to rebuild psychologically the destroyed aspects of my life, and I laid new foundations where I could and where none had existed before. I worked and talked out my issues, not with the psychs by with my friends and peers, most of whom were convicted felons.
But the Seroquil turned me into such a zombie that I couldn’t function or therefore grow, along with giving me potentially permanent neurological damage that caused restlessness in my limbs while on it.
Catch up on Chris’s other stories:
I was forced to see a different mental health professional. Dr. Madhavan, like a large percentage of the doctors working for the Michigan Department of Corrections, was a recent immigrant from India, having only spent a short time in the United States. The rumor was that this was her first job in the U.S. She spoke with such a heavy accent that she was often difficult to understand and often didn’t seem to understand us. The time came when I was ready to rely on only mv own brain chemicals, and I explained to her the negative effects they were having and that I would like to try to lower the powerful drugs prescribed me.
“Okay, I raise them.”
“NO, I don’t think you’re understanding me. I want them lowered,” I said as I waved my hand downward.
“NO, no, no. I raise them.”
“Look,” I said, getting frustrated. “I don’t want to be on them anymore. I want you to lower them. Let’s just see how I do.”
NO, no, no. You not know what you talking about. You need more. Let’s just see how you do on more. I doctor. You need to listen to doctor,” she said seriously. Then she smiled. “Doctor knows best, yes?”
Just as Steve was, I was threatened that I would be thrown in the Hole later that night when I refused my meds if I didn’t start complying. They said that I was merely making up symptoms that I had read from some manual, and that they’d “panel” me where, on recommendation of three psychiatrists over web-cam, I would be strapped to a gurney and force-fed drugs for my own good, much like the Inquisition torturing agnostics to make sure they’d go to Heaven.
I decided that either way, neither could continue for the 25 years I was sentenced to. I made the commitment that if they were going to make me take drugs that were giving me emotional damage and quite possibly brain damage, then they would have to make me take them. I continued to refuse the drugs, and when they attempted to panel me, I explained to them that they had no reason to believe that I was doing anything but better, also adding that I would hire a psychiatrist and lawyer of my own if I was strapped down without probable cause.
Steve was threatened with a panel but never given one.
Nick tried to stop taking medications that were making him anxious, but couldn’t, or didn’t know how to fight his way off of them.
Jerry, who had no prior use of psychotropic medications before his incarceration, used them to attempt suicide by overdose within a few months of his release (much as I had done in juvie, using saved-up meds to try to end a fight I didn’t know how to win).
Offering psychological and psychiatric services to the incarcerated is absolutely the right thing to do, caring for the ill and increasing public safety upon their release. The last thing any society wants are mentally ill individuals further psychologically damaged returning to the streets, their neighborhoods, or near their homes.
The problem comes when those who should be treated in the first place are thrown in cages instead… when juveniles are thrown in maximum security prisons… when a teenager spends a night in complete isolation when he or she hasn’t assaulted anyone… when a child is strapped to a gurney or treated as an adult without being given an adult voice or a chance for a say.
For the first time in his life, Steve, like me, is euthymic— able to accept his place in life and even sometimes to crack a smile. Actually, he smiles and laughs more than most people I know. He told me once that while he’s absolutely not happy to be in prison, he is overall happier now in his life than he ever was growing up.
Now that I am a man, despite being in prison, I feel the same way. Despite my shitty surroundings and trying to dream myself somewhere else every night, for the first time I want to experience every day. Sometimes a little proper guidance or a crucible to survive is the best anti-depressant.
Maybe the answer isn’t to stop doping up all these kids at the county and state level, offering them psychological services and strict structure and punishing them with hard time or solitary.
Maybe the answer is to stop locking kids up in the first place.
Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.
We send comments to our writers on a weekly basis, but if you’d like to contact this author directly, please write to:
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446