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The Politics of Sanity

Why do the UK and US disproportionately incarcerate the mentally ill, frequently poor people of color? Via multiple re-framings of the question–theological, socioeconomic, and psychological– Andrew Skotnicki diagnoses a “persecution of the prophetic” at the heart of the contemporary criminal justice system.

This interdisciplinary book draws on criminology, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and psychiatric history to consider the increasingly intractable issue of mass incarceration. Inviting a new, collaborative conversation on penal reform as a fundamentally “life-affirming” project, it defends the dignity of those diagnosed as mentally unstable and their capacity for spiritual transcendence.

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The first chapter will address a series of issues essential to the analytical task of probing the mental illness/jailhouse betrothal. It will first trace the radically disparate ways the phenomenon of insanity has been understood over the course of time, discussing biblical, classical, and other pre-modern arrangements with “psychosis” before turning its attention to the decisive shift to forcible institutionalization beginning with the transition to capitalist economies after the demise of feudalism and the rise of mercantilism. It will also provide a similar brief overview of the history of psychiatry since the changes within that discipline have moved through similar alteration, not only regarding the legitimacy of metaphysical inspiration, but also in the diminution of Freudian, Jungian, and other methodologies respectful of the role of the unconscious. In their place, there has been a marked emphasis on a strictly materialist, biological rendering of questionable cerebral functioning, accompanied by a virtual monopoly of medical and juridical discretion in deciding who and who is not capable of functioning outside the barbed wire confines of the local detention facility.

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The second chapter will explore theological and philosophical sources that account for the massive shift in worldviews that normalized two disparate strategies in response to the ravings of the “mad” and the foibles of the “sane.” Nietzsche and Foucault are particularly helpful in this task as they underscore the shattering of a largely wholistic, non-binary reaction to those floundering in the cognitive mainstream that characterized the traditional approach with “a moral genealogy” predicated upon the unimpeachable authority of those who have elevated themselves to a role of political and economic superiority. It is at this juncture that the concept of “man,” in Nietzschean parlance, was first brought into being, a creature definitively categorized by measurable performance in accord with heavily constrictive statutory and bureaucratic constraints. The discussion will blend with the suppositions of philosophical and perceptual dualism that furnish the necessary intellectual and moral stance for the guiltless desire to omit realms of experience, and classes of people, who fall outside the hyper-comparative and evaluative perspective part and parcel of a binary vision of the world.

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The third chapter will analyze why those considered to be mentally ill are so often punished. Socioeconomic, psychological, and theological factors will be considered. As to the first, the neoliberal fusion of an unfettered free market paired with an invasive scrutiny of individual conduct on the part of the law enforcement and security industries has played a substantial role in the massive rise in penal commitments in countries such as the United States and England over the last half century. The psychological section will work mainly with the ideas of Kierkegaard on the pervasive depression that all experience due to the human dichotomy between an unlimited imagination and a progressively limited physicality. Kierkegaard argues that it is those who honestly face this psychological morass who often devolve into fantasy and, at least seeming, fabrication while the “sane” majority tend to lose themselves in denial and identification with the prevailing cultural and moral status quo. Finally, it will discuss the ineffability of religious experience and the limited moral language that over determines a persistent diagnosis of psychosis and a-sociability for persons who have “out of body” experiences, hear voices, or have corporeal visions.

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The fourth chapter will provide a characterological depiction of the “mad” prophet. Basically, the prophet announces or conveys a message that virtually no one wants to hear, most of all those whose material and psychological profiles are held up to withering and indefensible scrutiny by the unwanted and disturbing presence of those seen as psychologically and socially incompetent. Among the issues that we will discuss, two are most pertinent to the book’s argument: common sense and insight.

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Chapter 5 will explore the question of who, exactly, are the contemporary prophets. Here, a distinction will be embellished between involuntary and voluntary prophets. The former assemblage is constituted by those whose life condition, invariably mired in poverty and social immobility, invokes spontaneous feelings of acute distress, frequently accompanied by the wild comportment and adverse reaction toward the citizenry at large that has led to their seizure and forcible removal from public spaces. This exposition will be followed by a profile of the voluntary prophet, one who has the conviction that he or she has been chosen by God, or by some unseen and, normally, unsought herald, to deliver an urgent message. That missive is always explosive in its substance as well as its intent. It seeks to undermine definitively any social, political, and economic structure that debases the sacredness of creature and creation. The chapter will end with a brief exposition on the prison as the sanctuary of the prophets.

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The voluntary and involuntary prophets who crowd our jails and prisons have been chosen to make us in the normal majority uncomfortable. That, however, does not fulfil their primary task which is to “save the world.” Their enforced exile will only come to an end via a cognitive, moral, psychological, and spiritual transformation among those who seek their demotion and disposal. That transformation must include the realization that those who make us uncomfortable and insecure must be given the opportunity to speak so their world-saving mission can be accomplished.

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There is a social psychological and, often, personal sense of dismay, trepidation, and irritation among the general population when confronted by persons of low status with acute psychological distress or by those with a radical political message. At the same time, detention facilities in nations such as Great Britain and the United States are more and more filled with representatives of these populations. The pathos and seeming hopelessness of their plight is poignantly captured by George Orwell in the character of the unwitting and helpless revolutionary, Winston, in the novel, 1984. Under torture by the effortlessly composed bureaucrat, O’Brien, Winston is reminded by his tormentor of the cost of resistance to the “sane” directives of the State: “You would not make an act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic.”

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It is a truism that crime is a reality constructed by those interests powerful enough to create the definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This chapter reminds us that mental illness is constructed in the same way and by those same interests. It should serve as no surprise, then, that those diagnosed as mentally ill are far more likely to go to jail or prison than to be consigned to a clinic, hospital, or asylum. In this chapter the causes for criminalizing abnormal behaviour are located not in the organic or medical realm but in the realm of social injustice and the persecution of the prophetic. Thus, prison has become in many respects the new sacred space for those with a piercing, and hence unwelcome, social vision.

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