On October 16, 2006, I was dirty and hungry. I had been homeless for three and a half years, and my hygiene was poor. Voices clouded my mind.
Because I was tired. I went to a nice area on the nearby university campus where I knew there were padded chairs, hoping to get some sleep. The voices in my head shut out all reason.
I wasn’t aware that the university lounge was where graduate students picked up their diplomas. The place I choose to sleep was also connected to the linguistics department. I was anything but welcome there, though the voices reminded me I had studied Chinese.
Before arriving at the lounge, I had scavenged for food from campus garbage cans. This had become commonplace for me. I survived by eating discarded food.
In the lounge, I laid down on a padded chair as if I were in a private room in a hotel. A few minutes later, I looked out the window to see members of the Los Angeles Police Department. In all my three years on the campus as a student and then three and a half years as a homeless person, I had never seen the LAPD on campus before. And they were there for me.
As police took me away, I was unaware that I had just become a statistic.
In the United States, the Los Angeles County Jail, Chicago’s Cook County Jail, and Riker’s Island Jail in New York each hold more mentally ill inmates than any psychiatric hospital in America. The Treatment Advocacy Center reports that approximately 20% of those incarcerated in American jails and 15% in American state prisons suffer from severe mental illness.1
What happened after I was arrested that day is a blur. I don’t remember being handcuffed, though I’m sure I was. The voices in my mind told me that the police had come for me because I had sat down too far to the right of the room.
I cannot recall being taken from the lounge to the police car, but I do remember the ride from the university to the jail. As we were driving, I actually enjoyed myself. During my years homeless I rarely traveled anywhere in cars.
Upon arriving at the jail, I saw a large group of women at what appeared to be a medical clinic. Then, I was asked if I needed medical care. If these women needed serious medical help, I wondered why they were in jail.
A female police officer briefly took me out of the cell briefly to take my finger prints. This terrified me, as I thought that the ink they used would give me a horrible disease, and that was the real reason they were taking my fingerprints. Later on, I became afraid of the food, wondering if it was poisoned.
In the holding cell, there was little light, and the darkness scared me. The other inmates and I were led from one room to another, hours at a time, still with no natural light. The rooms gave the feeling of because enclosed in a stopped elevator.
I was held in jail for about two days. You would think that my experience in jail would have changed my life—that I would finally contact my loving family or friends, asking them for help, or that I would go to a homeless shelter. But when I got out, nothing changed, and I resumed life as a homeless person.
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I simply walked from the jail in downtown LA back to the churchyard, pulled my sleeping bag out from behind the bushes, and spent the night there again. I never entered the USC campus again, but because of my delusions, I thought that someday I would be welcomed back with open arms, after winning my Nobel Peace Prize.
People with severe mental illness do not belong in jails and prisons. For me, I thought it was all a mistake. There was no intention of breaking a law or doing wrong. In my illness, I couldn’t choose to do the right thing. In fact, I believed living as I was to be right—I believed that living homeless was a necessary step in my life toward my bright future.
Persons who are taken to jail for decisions that come from psychosis and helplessness, such as my trespassing, need to see a clinician before being taken to jail. When I was first jailed, if I had been evaluated by a psychiatrist for a few minutes, I would have been hospitalized because of my obvious and severe mental health status and hallucinations. I had been experiencing voices and other hallucinations for over six months, and delusions for four years, when I was taken to jail.
Jails are for punishment, not to help people with mental illness embark on a road to recovery. I was in desperate need of medication and treatment, as are so many people who are booked into jails and prisons in the United States. These people need you to understand them, and to work to change how American jails and prisons handle the mentally ill.