My friend, Travis Christian, also known as state prisoner BB8099, is in trouble. Big trouble. I visited with him Sunday at Folsom State Prison in Sacramento, California. He’s in isolation not-so-fondly referred to as the hole. Or solitary confinement. He’s been there about two weeks.
Travis is 33. He has serious mental illness — bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder or some other disorder. Who knows? We try to label these illnesses and put people’s brains in neat little boxes. Everyone’s brain is different. Brains don’t fit in neat little boxes.
Travis has served eight years of a ten-year prison sentence. In a psychotic fury he stabbed someone he thought was Satan and ended up incarcerated. Never mind his serious mental illness. Law enforcement says he committed a crime.
While with a prison psych tech, Travis experienced another psychotic episode. He thought the tech was Satan. He punched him. Travis was sent to the hole for months — at first, no radio, no TV, no paper, no pencils, no books, nothing. Travis was allowed four walls and his sick mind.
Earlier this year, I began visiting Travis once a month. The last time I saw him was our best visit. It felt like we were becoming friends who could give and take and talk honestly with each other. Travis looked good — short cut hair, a small beard, bright eyes. He was taking a college health class. He was writing songs and singing them in his prison church. He was counting the dwindling days of his sentence. Only two or so more years. He would move home and work with his mom in her thrift store. He would get a dog. And a girlfriend. He’d be a free man.
A couple months ago, I received a different kind of letter from Travis. He wrote, “I’m doing great. I’m worried about you driving from Lincoln to Folsom to see me. What if you get in a car accident? We’re good, Dede. You don’t have to come visit me anymore.”
I wasn’t sure how to interpret Travis’s letter. Had I offended him? I didn’t know but I wrote back that I would follow his lead. I assured him, “I don’t visit you because I think you need me or because I’m trying to ‘fix’ you. I visit you because I hope to give you a break from your prison routine once a month. And I like talking with you. I like you, Travis.” The next letter from Travis was upbeat again. Lots of positive thoughts and good wishes for me. No mention of more visits.
Last Friday, I received a text message from Travis’s mom, Kathy. “Dede, Travis is in isolation again. Things have been bad. He decided he didn’t need his meds anymore. I begged the prison staff not to take him off his meds. We’ve been down this road before and it always ends badly. The staff said they would monitor him. While they were ‘monitoring’ him, he tried to kill himself by breaking his neck. He was put in a crisis bed for a few days and then released to a new cell with a new cellmate. Something happened. They might be charging him with attempted murder. They say I have to visit Travis to find out what happened. I can't go this weekend. Can you go see him?”
Yesterday, the prison shuttle bus dropped me off at a different building, Block A. I had a 10:30 AM appointment to visit with Travis for an hour and a half. In the visiting area, nine booths lined up with a chair and a phone in front of each prisoner’s box. We would talk to each other over the phone with glass separating us. No hugs. No pats on the back this time. Travis entered the visiting box with his wrists in chains connected to a chain around his waist. He waited for the guard to remove them. He didn’t know I was coming. I tried to smile. I asked, “What happened?”
Travis was on new meds when he was put into the new cell with the new cellie. It takes a while for meds, even if they’re the right meds, to kick in and help organize a disorganized brain. At first, things were okay. But then the cellie said something that set Travis’s mind whirling. He said something about “demons.” Travis said, “I argued with myself for a day. My mind said, ‘Your cellie is Satan.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not Satan.’ My mind said, ‘Yes, he is Satan.’” History repeatng itself.
Travis decided he had to rid his cellie of Satan. He tried to choke him. Three guards fought with Travis to get him to release his hold on his cellie’s neck. They beat him with a club. They broke his shoulder. Travis’s psychosis was strong. It made Travis strong.
Now Travis is in solitary again. An old pattern surfaces — Satan, fear, outbursts, trouble, punishment. Travis doesn’t know how long he’ll be in the hole this time. He doesn’t know what charges he’ll face. The guards brought him a radio a couple days ago. He listens to music. He reads a book. Another prisoner gave him some coffee to brew in his cell. He gets to be outside in the yard — in a 10 X 15 foot cage — for a few hours each week. He’s grateful.
“I’m fine, Dede. I’m fine. I have to learn from this. I have to be an adult and take responsibility for my actions. I used soap to paste photos on my cell wall. I put up photos of myself when I was a little boy. I look at that little boy in the photos. He never thought he’d be in prison. I have to take care of that little boy. I have to take care of me. My mom’s love makes me want to take care of me.”
Travis hasn’t been able to talk to his mom since he got in trouble. He says, “Tell her I love her. Ask her to please send some stamps and envelopes so I can write to her. And some books. I need some uplifting stories to read.”
Kathy and Travis’s sister will visit Travis next weekend. They’ll drive up from Southern California. Kathy says, “I love my son, Dede. I visit him. I put money in the commissary for him so he can buy what he needs. I send him packages. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help him. He’s difficult to treat because he always tries to put on a good face. To seem fine. Prisons like to make money. They make money off my phone calls to Travis. They make money from the visitor vending machines. They make money based on the size of the inmate population. Sometimes, I think they try to keep prisoners locked up to add to their bottom line.”
Shortly before noon I told Travis, “I’ll come visit you again. Like before.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I love you, Dede.”
I waited for the shuttle bus to take me back to the main entrance. I asked a roaming guard, “What percentage of this prison’s inmates do you think have a mental illness?” He said, “A lot. Probably 50 percent.” I told him what had happened to Travis. “Why would they put him back in a cell with another prisoner while they’re still adjusting his meds?” The guard said, “A panel makes the decision about where to house a prisoner. I don’t know if they know what they're doing when it comes to mental illness.”
This guard, probably in his forties, seemed empathetic. He seemed weary. He and I agreed that mental illness is such a huge problem and it impacts so many areas — homelessness, crime, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide — that no one seems to know how to solve it. Appropriate, accessible mental illness care and the decriminalization of mental illness would be a good place to start.
“Don’t stress too much,” the guard said. “Three years ago I had a stroke brought on by stress. Take care of yourself.”
“I try,” I said, “but it’s hard to walk away from all the horrendous suffering going on. I’ve been a mental illness advocate for over twenty-five years. Nothing’s getting better. Everything’s getting worse. This is our country’s shame.”
The shuttle bus arrived. I got on. Travis went back to the hole.