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The Progressive

Prison Is No Place for Persons With Mental Illness

DarRen Morris

Dec. 10 is international human rights day, and one thing we can do in the United States to honor it is to stop incarcerating persons with disabilities.

I was the young, urban teen ribbed for wearing thick glasses and hearing aids.

I was placed in special education classes.

I fought a lot.

And I ended up in the juvenile justice system, where about 70 percent of us had mental health disorders.

I am now a man with a floating diagnosis of schizophrenia and bi-polarity.

And at age 17, I was sentenced to life in prison and quickly ended up in solitary confinement, a condition that added to my mental suspicions, my fears and my frustration at not being able to hear or see well.

You, as a taxpayer, now pay $30,000 a year for my care.

Early, effective community mental health and diversion programs could have helped me become a non-threatening, productive member of society — and could have saved you a lot of money.

I don’t deny that I should be punished for my crime. I do contend it did not need to happen.

We need to provide access to treatment services for all people.

We need to evaluate disabilities early and help families understand the need to get help for their special-needs children.

We need programs to help these families pay for the treatment and glasses or hearing aids or other adaptations their children need.

We need to step beyond the stigmas of mental illness and disability.

We need better communication among treatment providers, our courts and corrections.

If, as Dostoevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then we have a long way to go.

Let us start by acknowledging that incarceration is not the answer for persons with disabilities.

Treatment is a human right for people with disabilities.

On international human rights day, we can at least affirm that.

DarRen Morris is a Wisconsin native, an artist and an inmate. To learn more, go to or contact

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