To illustrate this point, Montross recounts the history of a jailed man she calls Henry. Following Henry’s arrest, he refused to leave his cell, perhaps owing to paranoia. This refusal led correctional officers to subject him to a “cell extraction,” an anodyne term for a vicious practice. Predictably, Henry disliked the experience, and expressed his displeasure by striking the extractors. These blows could be deemed an assault on an officer, rendering Henry vulnerable to an extended stay in solitary confinement, which would, of course, only further harm his already precarious mental state. Moreover, if convicted of the assault, Henry could face imprisonment for more than a decade — ample opportunity to accrue additional charges and punishment.
Montross traveled extensively across this country, bearing witness to how jails and prisons both initiate and intensify mental illness. The strongest portions of her searing book appear in its parade of alarming vignettes. I will not soon forget some of her grotesque images. When she toured a high-security prison for male adolescents, she noticed several prisoners in single-occupancy cells striking an identical, bizarre pose: standing atop their toilets, with necks and heads contorted toward the ceiling. While Montross assumed the first person she encountered in this posture was mentally ill, it became apparent that the young men were simply attempting to converse with their neighbors through the building’s ducts. This moment, more than any other in Montross’s career, underscored “the fundamental need for connection,” she writes. “These are children in a critical period of neurodevelopment … trying desperately not to go through it all alone.”
At another facility, the Northern Correctional Institution, a “supermax,” built in Connecticut in the 1990s, Montross commented on the noise in a particularly cacophonous ward. A white nurse accompanying her replied: “I call this the monkey house.” Montross recoiled at the racist remark, which transformed a unit teeming with Black and brown men into beasts. Even by the grim standards of prisons, Montross found Northern’s layout forbidding. This ominous ambience, it turns out, was no accident. In a chilling passage, she notes that the facility’s architect has publicly boasted that it was specially designed to elicit alarm and distress from its inhabitants. Most are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. In such reprehensible conditions, the marvel is less that some men are driven mad than it is that any retain their sanity.
But Montross’s typically formidable narrative skills sometimes go awry, most notably when she shoehorns herself and her family into the story. One woman she encounters recalls being given crack cocaine at 11. This fact prompts Montross to insert a sustained riff about her daughter’s very different life at that age — one filled with Harry Potter, woven ankle bracelets and ice-cream cones. Elsewhere, in an effort to underscore the eternity of a 10-year prison sentence, Montross details the life events that have occurred during her last decade. Her “partial list” includes not only major occurrences but “10 autumns of raucous college Saturdays — a period during which my beloved Michigan Wolverines cycle through three head coaches and hordes of forgettable quarterbacks, and a point in every season when I’m lying on the floor and moaning after yet another interception and my children giggle uncontrollably at my agony.” Such passages needlessly distract from the gravity of her subject.