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Image by noor Younis

What Incarceration Does to Time

CW: Discussions of childhood sexual violence and suicide, hospitalization, state hospital

        Johnathan and I were friends. Every morning we’d walk, crusty-eyed and exhausted, to the unit cafeteria, where we’d get our two allotted cups of weak black coffee and check the contents of our breakfast trays.

        “Hey, I got something for you,” Johnathan would say as I exchanged my watered-down oatmeal for his apple cinnamon muffins.

        “Can I get your orange Gatorade?” I’d ask him, “I’ll trade you my yellow.”

        We’d make the barter. Go to stand in the med line, wait for our turn to swallow our antipsychotics and mood stabilizers with some choked-down tap water. The day nurse would have us open our mouths, waggle our tongues and pull out our cheeks. They would lean in and inspect our gums, the recesses of our mouths.

        After getting an all-clear, Johnathan and I would walk to our bedrooms and part ways—me to my laptop to disappear into a TV show, him to group, or to find another way to pass the time in the state hospital he knew he would be spending the rest of his life in.


        Back in 2012, the state renamed Worcester State Hospital to the considerably kinder title of Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital. The Department of Mental Health put hundreds of millions into a new building and a shiny new sign at the entrance of the campus. It took only four years for the Massachusetts’ “quality facility” to be locked down due to multiple fentanyl overdoses—DMH’s crowning jewel reduced to an aesthetically pleasing prison that is still experiencing the consequences of those who died years ago. Rehabilitation is nonexistent, and abolitionist groups make a point to call the facility by its actual name; no recovery is happening there, and the state needs to stop acting like it is.

        Worcester State is a particularly notorious DMH facility—while Tewksbury State and Taunton State tend to fill their beds with patients dealing with exclusively mental illness, Worcester has become a hub for both the mentally ill and the “criminally insane,” the latter overtaking the former. Suicidal and depressed patients were mixed into a unit with murders, sex offenders, and other individuals the courts had declared legally incompetent and thus unfit to be in prison for their violent crimes. Perhaps the worst part was that HIPAA laws prevented anyone from knowing why others were there—who was a child rapist and who was simply depressed.


       It is important to note, that both public and private psychiatric facilities exist within the same terms of prison. Carceral logic is intertwined with both: If you act in a way not societally acceptable, you will be removed from society. You will lose your freedom and your rights.


        I was incarcerated for six years in psychiatric institutions. My time at Worcester totaled just about a year. For six years, I could not leave or choose my treatment. My consent, or lack thereof, meant nothing. I could cry and grovel and say no in every way I knew how, only for serious drugs to be forced into more: from Lithium to Ketamine, a literal horse tranquilizer. My body was pumped full of whatever concoction the doctors had decided upon that week. I was a lab rat, the justification being that my life needed to be saved, whether I wanted it to be or not. When you are locked up, the days are monotonous, hazy, and blur together. You wake up to pace a hallway. You fall asleep prepared to do the same tomorrow.

        Under the conditions of my section, certain criteria had to be met for me to earn a discharge. To put it simply: the courts of Massachusetts would hold me in a locked facility until I had a will to live. Until I would eat, drink, and take medication with a smile; follow the rules and stop trying to kill myself. Until I found it within me to be kind to those imprisoning me, to thank them for forcing me to do what I had no reason to want to do, and “fuck you” turned into “thank you.” Until my body was not an active war zone.

        My healing process did not start because I wanted to live. It started because I realized that I would not be allowed to die—and faced a lifetime of rotting in the hospital or trying to find something to occupy however long my lifespan would be.

        I was constantly told by the authority around me that I had a choice in how my time on Earth panned out. So many others in Worcester didn’t. When I finally did leave, just before Christmas in 2020, I did feel guilty for the fact that I got to walk out of those gates. That I would know more than the walls of hellhole deemed “recovery center.”

        A search of the sex offender registry let me know that Johnathan was a level three offender who had raped at least two children under the age of five. A former patient let it slip that Meredith had suffocated her roommate in the nursing home to death over a pack of cigarettes.  A newspaper article told me Janelle had stabbed an ex-boyfriend with steak knives, that Gretchen had shot her father, and Isabelle had murdered her unborn baby and young daughter. Janelle, Isabelle, and Gretchen have been released to my knowledge—their crimes, though horrific, were committed in a state of psychosis. They did their time and are not thought to offend again with monitoring and therapy.

        I am in contact with only two people from my unit at Worcester. I exist in this reality where I feel for those people they hurt and understand how psychosis can alter someone so dramatically. I try not to touch the child abuse survivor in me that was unknowingly friends with a child rapist for a year. I do not understand how I spent six years of my life locked up. How I existed when time passed so slowly. I feel deep empathy for those incarcerated, and incredible guilt for the privilege of time passing quickly.

        I reflect on the time I spent prisoner, and how amazed I am to be free now. Outsiders don't understand how time moves in a carceral setting. As I write this essay, I am reminded of those I know who are still in a different plane of existence. Of the complex feelings I have about the people I lived with, of who I was back then and how it shaped me into who I am now. It is the holiday season, and I suppose Johnathan will have asked for a new coat as his state provided gift for Christmas. I know that the only place he will ever wear it will be in a high security, gated courtyard. For what he did, I want to hate him. For where he will live and eventually die, I wish him peace. 

Image by Adrien Olichon

ARLIS MARA is a psychiatric abuse survivor who engages in activism for the mad and mentally ill community. You can find them on social media platforms at @notyourquietsurvivor.

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