September 24, 2021

Author to discuss ‘madness’ of incarceration at Oct. 9 conference

By Mike Krokos

Writing has been how Dr. Christine Montross has always made sense of the world.

From a young age, the Indianapolis native enjoyed writing, which led to earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from the University of Michigan, where her parents, maternal grandparents and great-grandparents also attended.

During graduate school, the alumna of North Central High School in Indianapolis wrote poems about madness and about the ways in which the mind can derail. She then taught high school English and “worked with kids who were dealing with significant psychosocial stressors.” It was there she realized that her interest in mental health was something she should pursue more formally.

After taking night classes in chemistry, Montross enrolled in medical school at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where she pursued a degree in psychiatry.

“That’s how my career in medicine began—I really went to medical school knowing that I wanted to be a psychiatrist,” she said. “That didn’t change when I went. …. If anything, when I entered the anatomy lab on the first day of medical school and saw a room full of dead bodies on tables, I knew I would need writing to shepherd me through that experience!

“The eventual result was my first book, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab. And writing and medicine have been my dual careers ever since.”

Montross will be the keynote speaker during the fifth annual Corrections Ministry Conference, which will be held from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at Roncalli High School, 3300 Prague Road, in Indianapolis.

Hamilton County Superior Court Judge William J. Hughes will also give a talk on the criminal justice system. The event will also be livestreamed. (See a related column on page 12.) Montross’ book, Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration, will be the focus of her talk.

For the last decade, the doctor and author has worked as an inpatient psychiatrist in a freestanding psychiatric hospital. “I work on the intensive treatment units, which are the psychiatric version of the ICU [intensive care unit],” she said.

“The patients I treat are severely and acutely mentally ill,” said Montross when discussing how the idea for the book evolved. “They are seeing visions or hearing voices, or they are paranoid, or they are actively trying to harm themselves or other people. 

“I was struck by how often my patients come into contact with police, and even serve time in jail and prison. When I talked with them about these experiences, I learned that, more often than not, the legal charges they incurred were directly linked to their symptomatology—they were shouting at their voices in a Starbucks or charging through TSA [Transportation Security Administration] with a delusional belief that they urgently needed to board a plane.”

According to Montross, “The circumstances that led to their incarceration differed very little, if at all, from the kinds of circumstances that led to hospital admissions. And so, I wanted to learn more about why my patients sometimes ended up in punitive environments rather than therapeutic ones, and what happened to them in those places when they did.”

In the book, Montross—who is an associate professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University—discusses how mental illness is criminalized. It also focuses on how incarceration causes some mentally stable people to become psychiatrically unwell.

“Increasingly in America, we endorse prison practices that are not ‘correctional’ or rehabilitative, but that are, instead, dehumanizing and degrading. We separate people from their families and communities. We isolate men, women and even children in solitary confinement,” she said.

“We have stripped away vocational and educational programming in prisons that not only reduce recidivism and help people reintegrate into society when they leave prison, but which also give detainees purpose and structure. Our prison practices run counter to every principle of human flourishing that I know.”

The question at the heart of her book, Montross noted, is a philosophical one. 

“What kind of a society do we want to be? When we talk about our jails and prisons, we say that our goals are safety and justice. But in fact, our methods and strategies instead prioritize suffering and vengeance—priorities that are antithetical to our stated aims.

“If we want prisons to contribute to making society more safe and just,” Montross continued, “we must relinquish our desire for suffering and vengeance. And if we are unwilling or unable to do so, then we should at least be more honest about our intentions and acknowledge that, as a society, our primary goal is to have the people we imprison to suffer and to be harmed.  Because that is the current reality.

“My hope is that we are a more ethical and rational nation than our current prison practices indicate, and that by taking an honest look at the damaging system we have created, we can be motivated to change it.”

To register for this free event, go to www.archindy.org/corrections. †

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