Recently, my small socially liberal home state of Vermont was considering building a 925 bed private prison complex with psychiatric and juvenile facilities. Not surprisingly, the proposal was met with overwhelming opposition by liberal and leftist Vermonters. I think that many of us do not take kindly to private corporations that pocket taxpayer dollars while profiting off of systemic oppression. I’m not writing this piece to delve deep into the problems with the private prison industrial complex (of which there are many). I’m writing to specifically call attention to the different types of imprisonment that were folded into this proposal, and hopefully try to unite in solidarity a couple of different social justice movements that have previously at times been at odds with each other.
Within the movement to end forced psychiatric treatment, I have often heard activists and advocates bemoaning that people are being held against their will and force-drugged even though they have often never committed a crime. The forces of saneist discrimination deem some people to be likely to commit violence, and court orders are issued for their commitment and involuntary medication. This happens despite the fact that psychiatry has never been able to reliably predict who will act violently and who will not. I have heard our community argue (and have previously argued myself) that until a crime has been committed, every person should remain free from confinement despite their psychiatric diagnoses.
What I don’t often hear from this community against psychiatric imprisonment is a call to end imprisonment of all kinds. I know very few activists within this community who are working in solidarity with the prison abolition movement. I would like to see our community acknowledge the systemic racism, and prevalence of prisoner abuses inherent to the prison system. I would like our movement to acknowledge that imprisonment of any kind is traumatic and creates more problems than it attempts to solve. I think it is time for unity and coalition. It is time for both of our communities to recognize the oppression and injustice within both the psychiatric system and the prison system.
Likewise, those in the prison reform and prison abolition communities seem to very infrequently call out the injustice of forced psychiatric treatment. I have heard their advocates arguing that prisoners in distress need more psychiatric care. There seems to be a liberal notion that the majority of prisoners have mental disorders that are going left untreated. The distinction is not always made as to whether those prisoners are seeking psychiatric care on a voluntary basis or whether they are being presumed to need psychiatric imprisonment and forced treatment.
I want to call attention to the fact, just as this campus proposal makes clear, that imprisonment for any reason is still imprisonment. Though the 925 bed proposal is a nonstarter, the state is going to be building a new secure residential facility and forensic psychiatric unit. I would love to see people within the prison reform and prison abolition movements join us in fighting the expansion of psychiatric imprisonment and involuntary treatment. Our communities have more in common than we often realize. We should be working in solidarity with each other and not throwing each other under the bus.