Welcome to Wings Beyond Walls! We are the only national letter-writing program supporting prisoners with mental illnesses and mental health concerns. We’re glad you’re here. Please look around and pardon the mess, we are in the process of updating our site!
The Scope of the Problem
- In 2005 (the latest USDJ report), approximately 76% of jail and prison inmates in the U.S. had symptoms of a mental illness or mental health concern.
- The majority of these prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent and victimless crimes, such as trespassing, loitering, public intoxication, and other public nuisance charges; and drug offenses.
- In many cases, police arrest individuals on behavioral disturbance calls where the person is not breaking any laws.
- Once booked, people with MH concerns are incarcerated for longer than other inmates, regardless of the category of criminal charges imposed upon them.
- Inmates are exposed to violence and intimidation and often live in a state of constant fear and vigilance. Such an environment is especially traumatic for prisoners with mental illnesses; they are more likely to be brutalized, assaulted, raped, and murdered by prison guards and fellow inmates.
- These inmates are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement and for longer periods than their peers with no MH concerns, often because they are unable to understand and adequately follow arbitrary prison rules such as making their beds and keeping their cells organized.
- Solitary confinement exacerbates preexisting mental illnesses and can create new mental health problems in individuals that previously did not experience symptoms. Many are placed in solitary confinement for years or even decades.
- Prisons have inadequate resources to deal with inmates with MH concerns: prison guards believe that inmates are feigning illness in order to get special treatment, and so ignore their repeated requests to talk to a therapist or the staff psychiatrist.
- Once they are believed and treatment is provided, in many cases they are only seen by a mental health professional for twenty minutes every couple months.
- For inmates that take psychiatric medications to mitigate their symptoms, medications are often given sporadically, stopped and started without warning or apparent reasoning, or not given at all.
- Exercise is a healthy coping mechanism that many prisoners use to help their symptoms. However, inmates with MH concerns are less likely to have the opportunity to leave their cells to exercise, often being locked in for 23 hours a day or more.
- A majority of these prisoners come from unhealthy or abusive families and environments on the outside. This leads to chronic isolation with no social or family support.
- Without outside support or adequate support on the inside, their symptoms can rapidly deteriorate. The end result to this systematic neglect of prisoners with mental health concerns is a high rate of self harm and suicide.
One of our inmate penpals writes:
“I was going through a lot… Too much frustration, too much stress, too much pain that eventually lead me to what I did. I tried to commit suicide. I was very depressed. I was going to do it the day before, but retrieving your letter had stopped me that day. I read your letter as soon as I received it. Honestly, it gave me strength for the rest of that day..”
Peer support and mutual aid saves lives. Peer support encourages self care, empowers people to share their experiences and confront their fears, provides a connection to the outside world, reduces feelings of isolation, and can significantly decrease mental health symptoms. Offering emotional support to prisoners with mental health concerns through writing letters is the least we can do.
Contact us to get involved in the movement to help one of our most vulnerable populations survive and thrive. Donations and volunteers are greatly needed. Thank you.