The political economies of mental illness, solitary confinement, and women’s labor

Sonya Hall, Amir Hall’s aunt.

Across the United States, people living with mental illness are sent to prisons, rather than hospitals, clinics or other health programs. In the last three decades, prisons and jails have become the single largest institutional residence for those living with mental illnesses. While this is more or less public knowledge, the prison and jail systems have steadfastly refused to address the new tsunami. Funding for mental health providers has not increased. If anything, it’s been sliced and diced. Guards and other staff have not received additional training to address the `new populations.’

And so …

And so, what happens is exactly what you expect would happen. Prisoners `manifest symptoms’ and are placed in solitary confinement, often for prolonged periods of time. Acting out is seen as acting up, and that means the hole. And for prisoners living with mental illnesses, that can, and often does, mean death.

In this theater of atrocity, women take a number of specific hits. Here’s one.

Meet Sonya Hall, Shaleah Hall, and Donna Currao.

Donna Currao is the wife of Tommy Currao. Tommy Currao is one of the `lucky ones’. Currao attempted suicide at least ten times in ten months in solitary confinement. He tried to overdose, to hang himself, to slash himself, using the metal inside of his hearing aid. For the last attempt, with the hearing aid innards, Currao was charged $500 for `destruction of state property.’ In New York, where Currao is imprisoned, irony is not dead.

Donna Currao pushed and pulled and pushed some more. She saw what was happening to her husband in solitary. She knew how to read the words and, even more, the silences, and she forced the State to do something as her husband lost both weight and words.

A few months ago, Donna Currao’s insistent organizing finally forced the State to send her husband to a psychologist, who diagnosed the prisoner as in serious need of help. He was moved from the hole to health treatment and now, a mere months later, is “1,000 times better.”

Donna Currao now wonders, “Why do we have to fight so hard to get them evaluated?”

Sonya Hall and Shaleah Hall also ask why. Sonya Hall is Amir Hall’s aunt. Shaleah Hall is Amir Hall’s sister. Both are now part of the United States’ version of Mothers of the Disappeared.

Amir Hall’s story is tragically short. He lived with severe mental illness. He would have outbursts. One outburst resulted in prison, for parole violation. He had outbursts in prison. That led, finally, to ten months in solitary. He never returned. As Shaleah Hall noted, watching a video of his `transfer’, “There was somebody who looked defeated, like the life was beat out of him. I don’t know who that person was. The person in that video was not my brother.”

Why? Why, when doctors and pretty much everyone else had diagnosed and recognized Amir Hall as someone living with severe mental illness was the young Black man `diagnosed’ by prison staff as not serious? Why? Why must Shaleah Hall and Sonya Hall now work so hard, so intensely, so long to get something that will not be justice and will not be healing but will be something? Why? Why must Donna Carao fight so hard to get something so obvious?

The populations targeted for incarceration are also targeted for intensive and extensive labor, none of which counts as labor. That population, the laboring non-laboring ones, is made up overwhelmingly of women. Who benefits from women’s non-laboring labor in the prison industrial factory system that shoves those living with mental illnesses into death holes?


(Photo Credit: Shannon DeCelle / ProPublica)