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Incarcerating Depression: An Inmate's Story

Updated Story: David is out of prison now. Hear his story.

“I literally don’t care whether I live or die.”

David A. Evans mumbled these words into a phone Tuesday, Feb. 9th while standing against the wall of a rec-room at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Virginia. It had been a normal day for Evans. He woke up at 5 a.m., was trudged into the dining hall for breakfast, watched as he took his medication, and locked back in his cell for the next four hours, where he spent time writing letters to loved ones.

Evans now finds himself more depressed than ever before. He had trouble finding the will to walk outside his cell that morning, and every morning before. What was left of his concept of self-worth, he said, is now gone. Depression has become a permanent mindset.

“I just see myself as a commodity of the state now,” Evans said, reflecting on his incarceration. “I feel like a dog that doesn’t get walked. I’m told when I can eat, when I can stand, when I can sit down, when I can move and I can’t go outside. It makes you feel meaningless.”

Evans, 22, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) in middle school, long before his incarceration. He is among the nearly 30 percent of inmates in local jails across the U.S. who experience serious symptoms of depression, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

For many like Evans, incarceration tends to amplify depression symptoms. Suicidal thoughts, though Evans said were existent before his incarceration, are now common and more prevalent than ever. It has been this way since last July, when he was arrested at his uncle’s home in Lorton, Virginia.

Evans was found guilty September 9th in the Spotsylvania Circuit Court of sexually abusing his 16-year-old sister. He has so far served ten months of his 3-year sentence, a shorter sentence than most sex offenders — Evans’ sentence was suspended by 17 years after accepting a plea deal.

Though Evans claims he is innocent, the plea deal was the second time Evans plead guilty to charges of rape. Before he was arrested, Evans was administered a polygraph test in which he experienced an anxiety attack and confessed to rape. Evans has lived with a lifetime of extreme anxiety — it is a common symptom of MDD.

Anxiety is one example of the symptoms Evans and others with MDD suffer from. Thoughts of guilt and hopelessness are widespread among U.S. inmates. According to the BJS, 40 percent of local jail inmates who never experienced depression symptoms before incarceration have had persistent feelings of worthlessness since being incarcerated.

Thirteen percent of those inmates admitted to attempting suicide since being incarcerated — suicide is the number one cause of death among inmates in local jails across the U.S. Over 3,000 inmates in local jails committed suicide between 2000-2010.

“There’s definitely a lot of people depressed here,” Evans said. “A lot of people have started taking medication because there’s nothing to do here, so they drug you up, and then they sit you in your cell for 18 hours. That’s not really good for depression.”

It is required that local jails administer drugs to inmates who are prescribed medication by a doctor sometime before or during their incarceration, via the 1996 circuit court case, Prewitt v. Roos. If given depression medication when it is not needed, though, inmates can experience damaging and reverse effects.

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that all antidepressants have the ability to induce suicidal thoughts. In RRJ, the antidepressants Zoloft and Wellbutrin are commonly prescribed to inmates. Evans, who takes both medications, said that RRJ has a tendency to prescribe antidepressants to inmates without a proper session with a psychiatrist.

Evans went on to say the jail’s psychiatrist, whom the inmates call Wacky Mackie, is nearly impossible to get an appointment with, making it hard to correct the serious side-effects of antidepressants.

“If you try to see mental health, you have to wait months and months for that,” Evans said. “If you want help, it’s usually solely on you.”

RRJ spokesperson Kevin Hudson said the waiting list to see the jail’s psychiatrist is organized by priority. A therapist determines if psychiatric help is needed, and those inmates with severe symptoms are given help immediately, leaving inmates with minor symptoms of disorder on the waiting list for months.

To help inmates cope with depression, Hudson said RRJ will regularly prescribe inmates with serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Zoloft and Wellbutrin, but said a psychiatric professional must first deem it appropriate, and denied the notion that drugs were administered loosely.

Hudson noted that the prevalence of mental disorders among inmates is a bigger problem than most people realize, and one that is common among jails across the country, not just within RRJ.

“If (the prevalence of mental disorder) wasn’t a problem, there would be no need for a mental health team,” Hudson said. “For those who suffer from depression, being placed in an institution can be very harmful.”

Not only do mental disorders affect inmates at a high rate, but recent data also shows a significant increase in symptoms of MDD in inmates that have been incarcerated within the last year, leading more psychiatrists to believe the effect of incarceration is more dire than originally thought.

“Major depressive disorder is more common in former inmates than alcohol dependence, drug abuse, or drug dependence, despite the link between the latter and crime,” wrote Jason Schnittker, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor who has heavily studied the effects of incarceration on mental health patients.

Evans’ perceived future following his incarceration mirrors that of Schnittker’s analysis. More than anything, Evans said he fears he will end up back in jail shortly after his release. He heard from other inmates that being on probation can be a lot harder than actually being in jail.

“I just don’t see any hope after being named a sex offender and a felon,” Evans said. “I won’t go anywhere in life. Whatever hope I still had before jail is definitely gone now.”

On ways he thinks RRJ could improve the quality of life among patients, Evans said the biggest problem is the perception of the inmates.

“They can start by giving a damn about us,” Evans said. “They could say hello, and ask how I’m doing. Just basic things. I want to be treated like an actual human being. The only interaction the staff gives us is sit down, go to your cell, or eat your food. It’s all commands.”

Currently, Evans said he hopes to get connected with the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia in an effort to clear his name after his release. It is the thought of being named a sexual offender for life, Evans said, that is worse than his actual sentence.

His fellow inmates told Evans to not get his hopes up, though. Evans said a lot of inmates at RRJ seemed to have given up hope at a better life after their sentence is over, and encouraged Evans to do the same.

“They keep telling me to never get my hopes up,” Evans said. “Never.”

*Evans has since been transferred to Greensville Correctional Center in Greensville County, Virginia, where he will serve the remainder of his sentence. He is set to be released in December 2018.