Tales from the Couch

Seeing the patient from psychiatry’s perspective

My Day Behind Bars

The Jailhouse Lawyer

It looked like something out of a nightmare—the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York. The original building was a hospital for the criminally insane, and eventually became the immense Fishkill prison complex as it now exists. The vast series of buildings is surrounded by multiple chain link fences and concertina wire.

I was asked to psychiatrically evaluate an inmate who was doing 25 years for armed robbery. Acting as his own attorney, Bobby G had lodged a civil suit against New York State. His legal papers (all handwritten) alleged that the prison air contained toxic particulates causing him breathing problems. Prison doctors thought Bobby might be delusional—that he clung to a psychotic belief about the air. They wanted to know if Bobby was competent to represent himself as a pro se plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, and if his legal action was the result of paranoia.

At the main entrance, I was searched, wanded, and told to remove my shoes, which were examined. I walked through a metal detector, feeling like a prisoner. A burly guard escorted me down a long corridor. We passed through electronically controlled floor-to-ceiling doors that slid shut behind us, as we penetrated deeper into the belly of the beast. Cinder block walls and fluorescent lights added to my eerie sense of dislocation.

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“What a place,” I said to the guard. “It’s like being in hell.”

“I work here five days a week, and that’s how I feel.”

“At least you go home at the end of the shift.”

“These guys never go anywhere.”

At the medical unit, I was led into to a small room with a table and two metal chairs.

Bobby G was a wiry, 30-year-old black man, who greeted me with a smile. Having read his legal filings, neatly penciled in block print, it was obvious he was the proverbial jailhouse lawyer, and a man of keen intelligence.

He candidly answered my questions, and our back-and-forth was friendly. Bobby wasn’t suspicious or hallucinating, and didn’t view me as an adversary. He talked about life in prison and described what it was like to live each day without freedom or control. He spoke of a brutal childhood, punctuated by deprivation and neglect, in a series of foster homes. I couldn’t help but think, with a different upbringing, how this natively intelligent man could have been a colleague, rather than a convicted felon serving out a long sentence.

As the interview progressed, it was clear Bobby didn’t harbor some psychotic belief the state was pumping toxic fumes into his cell, and he wasn’t the least bit paranoid. He was clearly capable of representing himself in court. He understood the purpose of my examination, and knew I’d be preparing a report about his mental status. Nonetheless, he talked openly and cordially. I found myself nearly forgetting we were deep in the bowels of a maximum security cell block.

As the examination was drawing to a close, Bobby said, “So, Doc, am I crazy?”

“You know I’m not allowed to divulge my findings.”

“I know. I’m just testin’ ya. You’re a good guy, and I like you.”

“You’re okay, Bobby. I like you, too.”

As I gathered my papers and was about to leave, Bobby said with a smile, “Don’t worry, Doc, when this goes to trial, I’ll go easy on you in cross-examination.”

Though the case never came to trial—it probably settled out of court—I still think of Bobby G and wonder how he’s doing.

Mark Rubinstein, M.D., is a former professor of psychiatry at Cornell. His most recent book is the novel Mad Dog House.

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