My sister’s struggle: A mentally ill veteran behind bars

She was 5’5, a full head of black hair like silk, skin the color of cocoa beans, she glistened in the glory of the world, regardless of the hell that it gave her. She was a force to be reckoned with. Full of attitude, edge, confidence, the closest thing to a role model I had.

She could’ve been anything. So she chose to be Army strong. At the tender age of 18, she left the nest for the first time. This was all that she knew, and the Army was the only way out, from her point of view. “Uncle Sam is going to make a woman out of you,” said my grandmother.

antionette-headshot-1I remember crying tears of joy when we met her again in Virginia for her basic training graduation. It had been 16 long weeks. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. It was only the second time I had ever seen my grandmother cry (the first was when my sister left). We were so proud, and we missed her dearly.

That was the last time I would see the sister I knew then. 

Ten years later, her fragile frame holds only about 100 pounds. What was once lean muscle is now loose skin that hangs away from the bone. Deployed twice to Afghanistan, Iraq, she was a tough girl, and a fighter. But even the tough girl was no match for the stressors of war,

“I hear voices. The government is trying to get me. They’re coming for me. You have to believe me,” she pleads. In my head I know these things are true, to her.

Over half of all inmates in jails and prisons suffer from some type of mental illness.

Lakisha has stopped fighting the voices, and they have taken over her life, to the point where she can no longer carry out day-to-day functions of civil life. When her home isn’t on the streets, it is behind iron bars in a matchbox sized room with one way in and one way out.

My sister is just one example of how the criminal justice system in America is used as a solvent to mental illness, homelessness, and overall poverty. There are millions of sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons out there like her. Even those who protect our country are vulnerable to the prison bars that have become a house for those who are mentally incapable. The place where America hides its scapegoats. Over half of all inmates in jails and prisons suffer from some type of mental illness. Female inmates have a 75 percent rate of mental illness in state prisons while men have a 55 percent rate.

Prison is a band-aid for poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, and an array of interconnected social issues that disproportionately disadvantage people of color. People should not be funneled back into the prison system, by the same odds that forced them into it. America accounts for around 5 percent of the world’s population, but we house 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Black and Latino men makeup well-over half of those incarcerated. In the words of Michelle Alexander, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow.

We can do better.

Germany has one of the best justice systems in the world because it’s prisons are framed around rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment. Wardens are often professional psychologists; the prison sentences are much shorter. Leaders are dedicated to keeping low incarceration rates and helping those who have been imprisoned to reenter society. There are fewer than 100 prisoners for every 100,000 Germans, while there more than 600 prisoners for every 100,000 Americans. We can change the way that we think about punishment here by examining the way places like Germany are successfully dealing with crime management.

[In Germany] wardens are often professional psychologists.

It’s time to reassess our own justice system, and I think a good starting point is here in Philadelphia where prison reentry issues affect so many lives. But this is larger than Philly. I am dedicated to this project because its the chance to critically address one of the major institutions in America that disadvantages people of color.

I am excited to be surrounded by seasoned journalists in this collaboration, who can also point the way to a better America. Together I hope we can give people the information they need to move towards the future.