Insane Until Proven Sane: Realities of Prison Psych Wards

Originally posted on

*I swear there are no spoilers in this post (but there may be some hints)

Recently, I decided to see what the fuss surrounding Orange is the New Black is about. I’m nearing the end of the first season and just finished an episode which depicted the environment of the prison psych ward. When it comes to the prison system, we like to think that any misery a person endures is only what they deserve after committing a crime. Psych wards are a bit different. I think most people have sympathy for those who have committed crimes due to mental instability. We accept that prison is punishment, but psych wards are supposed to help those with mental illness, right? At the very least, they’re supposed to do all they can to support the health and wellness of the patient.

That’s not what this scene depicted at all. Watching it, I couldn’t  help but think of the movie Sucker Punch. Were the actions of doctors in Orange any different from the doctors in Sucker Punch or did they just trade lobotomies for drugs? Certainly we’ve gained some additional amount of understanding on the human mind since the 1960s that we don’t need to use such crude methods.

I only know so much about the realities of prison systems and psych wards in the United States. Having never studied either, I’m uncomfortable claiming that Orange is the New Black is an accurate depiction. That said, I don’t find it hard to believe that our current system is corrupt. The general public has little sympathy for the 20 percent of the population behind bars and often figures they get whatever they deserve while incarcerated.

When I first realized a certain character was headed to the psych ward, I was happy. In that moment, I joined with the general public, lacking all sympathy for a person I considered to be evil. Then, the scene came. It was a short few seconds in a cell of a psych ward and my outlook was completely changed. I was disgusted and disturbed by what was happening in the show and I started to worry if that sort of thing really happens. Is that really how we treat prisoners? What about people who haven’t committed a crime and are just severely mentally handicapped? Certainly a person has to be dramatically dysfunctional to necessitate that. I don’t know, though, and the thought haunts me. The idea that, right now, there might be a sane person suffering in a psych ward because they said or did the wrong thing at the wrong time in front of the wrong person bothers me more than I can explain in words.

That’s another reason Sucker Punch came to mind. The girl in that movie wasn’t insane. Quite the opposite, she had witnessed a crime and ended up in a psych ward to keep it under wraps. Her claims were seen as hallucinations and only proved her lack of sanity. Maybe, if she had given up on turning in the criminal and accepted everything the doctors said to her as truth, she would have been spared from her fate.

This photo, “ahh.. that’s better.” is copyright (c) 2014 Jill Robidoux and made available under anAttribution 2.0 Generic license

There must be a fine line between sanity and insanity. Why else would relatively sane people get mixed up with the sane. We’d like to think the difference would be obvious, but it can’t be if scenes like that happen in real life. What struck me the most is that a sane person could find themselves permanently stuck in that ward simply due to their own ignorance.

Imagine an animal caught in a barbed wire fence. When the owner approaches, the animal lashes out. It’s in pain, its trapped and it’s afraid the owner will just add to the pain. It’s trashes threaten to harm it more and tear about the fence, so the owner has no choice but to shoot the animal. Compare that to an animal in the same situation who remained calm. Maybe they whimpered a bit. Maybe they shrunk back from the owner when he came to see what was happening. When the owner approached, the animal stays still, recognizing that, while they don’t trust the owner, they are the only ones who can help them escape. Sure, the owner can still choose to shot the animal if they wish, but there’s now a chance they won’t. Seeing the animal as a non-treat, they may choose to free it and leave it be.

In Orange is the New Black, the prisoner may as well have been an animal given the way the doctors and guards looked at her. Their actions were probably as based on fear (for their safety and the safety of other prisoners) as they were on their job descriptions. The balance seemed off somehow. A person doesn’t have to be proven insane in order to be forced into restraints, but, once in them, they need to prove their sanity in order to get out. Something about that doesn’t seem completely humane to me.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that people in prison psych wards aren’t really being treated like Orange is the New Black depicted and that sane people really don’t get trapped in them. This is keeping me up at night, though, because I can believe that hell is a reality somewhere. My heart breaks at the thought there may be people suffering like that right now and I can’t think of anything I can do to save them from their torment.

Have you been watching Orange is the New Black? Do you think it accurately portrays women’s prisons? Does it accurately portray solitary confinement and prison psych wards? What do you think the environment is like in real life psych wards? Do you think the conditions and treatment of the patients is acceptable?

Twitter: @tkrv12


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