A conversation with YUPP: Histories of Mental Health and Imprisonment Discussion

Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) hosted “Histories of Mental Health and Imprisonment” at Davenport College on March 4, 2019. The goal of the panel discussion was to inform the effects of mass incarceration on mental health through literature, psychology, and social activism. Panelists included Caleb Smith, Professor of English, Dr. Reena Kapoor, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, and Vidal Guzman, a formerly incarcerated JLUSA community oraganizer.  

Danielle Harris (BK ‘21) and Jordan Ashby (DC ‘22) who led and attended the panel discussion recently submitted a reflection:

“On Monday, March 4th, the YUPP speakers and events leaders brought together a diverse group of speakers (a community activist, a Yale English professor, and a psychiatrist and Yale psychiatry professor) to discuss the loaded and complex intersections between mass incarceration and mental health. All three speakers brought ideas from their respective fields of expertise and built on each other’s ideas in a fascinating conversation.

From left to right: Vidal Guzman, Caleb Smith, and Dr. Reena Kapoor.

Vidal Guzman, a formerly incarcerated community activist, provided a sense of the horrors of Rikers Island, which he described as a “torture island” and “gladiator school” in which he saw three people commit suicide in his first week. Our panelists linked this to the story of Kalief Browder, an activist who committed suicide shortly after being released from Rikers. Guzman reminded us that there are many more Kalief Browders whose stories are never heard. Reena Kapoor, a Yale Associate Professor of Psychiatry, emphasized that when she worked as a prison psychiatrist, almost all of her patients were suffering from delusions and hallucinations. This meant that people like Browder and Guzman, whose struggles with mental health were not as outwardly displayed, are constantly denied treatment or slip through the cracks in the prison mental health system.

Vidal Guzman emphasised that even small-seeming things like language can have a huge impact on mental health. For him, repeatedly referring to incarcerated people as “felons,” “convicts,” or “inmates” is frequently dehumanising, and denies incarcerated individuals their full humanity. Caleb Smith, a Yale English professor who teaches in prisons through the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) noted that from his perspective, education programs which allowed for the classroom to be an escape for the psychological drain that every prison produces can have a positive effect on prison mental health. However, as Kapoor reminded us, while prison mental health can be improved, it can never be good as long as prisons exist, since imprisonment is inherently unnatural and damaging to the psyche. Guzman agreed, adding that incarceration is just an exacerbation of the poverty, inequality, and isolation that many incarcerated individuals experience throughout their lives before they are even arrested.

Smith brought some hope by noting that one of the positives of studying the long history of prisons was being reminded that just as there was a time before the prison system existed, there can be a time after it. Guzman encouraged us all to reach out to local community organizations, such as his group, Just Leadership USA, as well as YUPP’s own advocacy programs, to do what we can to join the cause of releasing mass incarceration’s death grip on America.”

The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) is a student-run social justice organization with over 150 members at Dwight Hall. Its goal is to reduce recidivism and promote dialogue around issues connected to mass incarceration. 

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