Texas After Violence Project
persons affected by severe violence
by Celeste Henery, PhD
It is with great pleasure and honor that I am here on behalf of the Texas After Violence Project from Austin, Texas in the United States. Our organization documents the narratives of persons affected by severe violence in the state of Texas. We do so by video-taping our interviews and, with the author’s permission, we make them publicly available through our archive with the Human Rights Documentation Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. We have interviewed family members of murder victims and executed persons, attorneys, judges, journalists, social service providers, activists, scholars, clergy, among others. Bringing this wide variety of voices into a common archive for the public record is part of our effort to complicate the conversation in the US and beyond around the effects of violence and the criminal justice system. Our interviews affirm that the impacts of violence ripple through society and that the two-sided urges of right and wrong do not advance our social conversation. Violence is a human rights issue globally and in constant need of voice.
A large part of the ethos of our work is listening, the act of holding space for individuals whose lives have frequently been upturned, imprinted or mobilized around acts of violence.
Narrators must give consent to make their interviews public. This process requires patience and can be disappointing when final consent is not given, yet the interview i tself encapsulates the quiet work of bearing witness to stories, perspectives and experiences that often do not make it beyond the reductive American public discourses of victim and criminal, hero and enemy.
I am an anthropologist; I trust in the process and work of pursuing and listening to human stories. I became an interviewer for the Project because of my ethnographic research experience studying questions of mental health and race in Brazil and the US. My principal research focused on a group of older black women in an underserved urban neighborhood in Brazil who formed a singing group to improve their mental health. Almost all of the women were taking anti-anxiety medication and some had been institutionalized. Believing that drugs were not the solution, a local activist put this group together to give these women a space to talk about the stresses of their lives which were not merely chemical, but came from the complexities of being single mothers, living in economic poverty, enduring violence and drug trafficking in the neighborhood and often their children’s involvement in the trade. Their narratives of visiting their sons in prison and the humiliation and fear they experienced gave painful shape to their life stories and flowed alongside their own bouts of time spent in state run mental asylums.
Listening to and recording these women’s accounts illuminated several realities. Of particular note was the trials of black people’s experiences, trajectories and time spent sustaining their mental health while interacting with State-run institutions that possess many of our society’s un-well. Spending time with these women also evidenced the power of giving voice to the stories of people rarely heard and whose understandings are seldom welcomed into the public record.
Fearful of being forgotten, the women agreed to be a part of my research because it was an opportunity to have their lives and stories brought into view. For me, their testimonies complicated what it means to be healthy or well in societies fraught with gendered racism, with populations lacking an understanding of mental illness, maintaining underdeveloped ideas of mental health, while at the same time relying on institutions to hold individuals whose behaviors they do not comprehended and don’t know how to alter.
Of the over 2 million people in state and federal custody in the US, experts believe that 500,000 are mentally ill. The statistics report that 16 to 25% of the prison population can be classified as severely mentally ill, in this case meaning they fit the psychiatric definitions of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression. Similarly, there are estimates that 70% of youth in youth detention centers suffer from mental health disorders. In Texas, of the 170,000 prisoners, approximately 10% of the prison population have a diagnosis of severe mental illness that would qualify as a “priority population” for mental health services (Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments Biennial Report). Conservative estimates also reveal that 5-10% of death row inmates suffer from serious mental illness. The odds are 8 to 1 in Texas that persons with mental illness will be in prison rather than in a psychiatric hospital.
While race is not a factor in the prevalence of mental illness – that is, mental illness occurs in the same rates across race and ethnicity – its influence in the prison system is evident. Almost 70% of the incarcerated population is comprised of Black and Latinos even though they account for only 25% of the US population. There are significant gaps in the diagnosis and treatment of persons with mental illness by race. Yet, black people are more likely to receive their first diagnosis of and treatment for their mental illness through the prison system.
The picture I paint echoes what the women’s stories evoked: a vision of the painful intersection of questions surrounding race, mental illness and the criminal justice system. Moreover they gesture to the overlapping stories, frequently silenced, of mental illness within the black community and incarcerated persons with mental illness, both black and other. All together, this silence is staggering.
I now turn to a short case study from Austin. Sophia King was a dark-skinned 23-yearold mother of two, who was killed by a police officer on a June morning in 2002. She was shot at the public housing complex where she resided paying low-rent and struggling to hold a job in spite of her high school education. On the day of Ms. King’s death, a manager from the Housing Authority was attempting to document Sophia’s irrational and disturbing behavior, ostensibly in hopes of creating grounds for her eviction, and Ms. King was shot after she apparently went after the manager with a knife.
The early morning blaring music and the water found running from taps throughout Sophia’s house the day she died were nuisances to her neighbors and led them to refer to and fear her as “not right,” “a bully” and of course “crazy.” Her behavior no doubt warranted a call for assistance, however the descriptions of her likeability and notably her illogical ways of being expressed in the case never advanced into a substantive discussion of this woman’s illness.
There was no medication found in Ms. King’s bloodstream when she died; and the irony, I imagine, is that these ways of being were the iterations as well as the tools she was using, without medication, to handle all that she did not want to feel or hear –voices that may have directed her attention and rage towards the housing manager. It was a profoundly desperate and tragic morning.
Ms. King’s life ended abruptly and in crisis. Her death at the hands of a police officer sadly reads in the US like the inevitable end to a young, poor black woman whose police file was significantly larger than her psychiatric or medical records. While her runs-in with the police, according to news report, began in 1997, her diagnosis of schizophrenia and time spent at the state hospital did not happen until 2000. We can only guess at how the early manifestations of her illness could offer another prism through which to view her complicated and short life.
I am empathetic to the story of Ms. King because of how often stories like hers are not told, particularly if they end in incarceration rather than a public, violent death. Gabe, my partner in this presentation and who has worked for the organization since its inception in 2007, will go deeper into accounts of both TAVP interviews with persons or cases regarding the severely mentally ill and questions around mental illness within the criminal justice system. There is visible path that leads economically poor persons with mental illness, often of color, into the criminal justice system rather than into mental health care services.
Prisons can become spaces where persons receive mental health care, but they too are spaces that more often silence and simplify stories of mental illness and definitions of mental health. They are systems that sustain notions of fear, criminality and violence as dominant narratives that are privileged over the life stories of those individuals within their hold.
My work at TAVP seeks to continue the documentation of the less heard stories specifically those of people of color and mental illness within the criminal justice system. Providing a space for grieving parents to speak of their inability to get mental health care for their child before they wound up in prison, or attorneys’ vantages on criminal insanity as a defense in US courts, or the frequent references to the quantities of persons with mental illness on death row are just some of the stories that, when made public, can help to inform, teach and most compellingly, personalize and diversify the discussions on the institutions and social problems we wish to and must address.