What is PsyKu?
Several years ago, while working in the pretrial evaluation unit of a state hospital, I was conducting an evaluation with a man accused of dismembering his estranged wife and arranging her severed limbs in the bureau in his bedroom. My job was to determine if this man was (a) competent to stand trial and (b) insane when he did it. There was really no question about his having committed the crime as he readily admitted to it and was actually quite proud of his handiwork.
He explained to me that he had originally attempted to stuff the limbs in the hollowed out chest cavity but found that “her legs just wouldn’t cooperate.” Which is why he opted to place them all in the bureau, as if this made more sense. He ended up neatly placing her clothes, jewelry, and purse in the body instead. With a gleam in his eyes he conspiratorially shared that it made a pretty good suitcase. At that point, I didn’t really think there would be much of an examination for part (b) of the evaluation.
The patient I had scheduled after “chopper” (as he was affectionately known on the ward) was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed the government had placed a microchip under the filling of one of his molars. He ultimately convinced a dentist in the community – through repeated, impassioned pleas – to remove it. Unfortunately for the patient, the procedure failed to fix the problem as he continued to receive messages from the government that only he could hear. Naturally, he assumed that either he had the wrong tooth removed or that there was more than one chip in his mouth.
When that dentist refused to pull any other teeth without a sufficient medical rationale for doing so, the patient sought out others who were more sympathetic to his plight. Or at least less concerned with ethics. With each procedure, he failed to find relief but continued to believe that the chip was still in his mouth. Even after having all but seven of his teeth removed (the last three he did himself), he remained resolute in this delusional belief. And rather than acknowledging that maybe he was wrong about the existence of the microchip, he merely considered the failure to discover the chip as evidence that he had underestimated the sophistication of the government in having implanted it.
“All this time, they wanted me to think it was in my teeth so I’d waste my time looking for it there when it was really in my brain, which is how they’ve been monitoring my thoughts.”
Now, why on Earth any government agency would want to monitor this man’s thoughts was beyond me. Especially since he made no effort to conceal his thinking and was in fact quite happy to tell anyone within earshot what was going through that decidedly misfiring brain of his.
But it was futile to point that out to him so I patiently listened to him explain to me (a government employee) why he was so distrustful of the government. It was the same story he told every time I saw him. People with psychotic delusions are nothing if not consistent.
As a result, the only note I wrote on him during the session was “see last week.”
And it was at that point that I noticed what I had written about my previous client. Standing out in the middle of my yellow legal pad were these words: “I have to admit, the torso of your ex-wife makes a nice suitcase.” If it hadn’t been for the comma in that sentence, I may not have come up with the concept of PsyKu. But for some reason, it stuck out. Maybe it was because I had heard a bit about haiku on the radio. Maybe I was just “bored out of my gourd,” as my dad would say. But I found myself counting the syllables in that sentence. And while my schizophrenic patient went on explaining why his most recent MRI had failed to detect the microchip in his brain (“Who do you think pays for the machines at the hospital? The government!”) I rewrote that sentence on three separate lines:
I have to admit
the torso of your ex-wife
makes a nice suitcase
In parentheses after each line, I wrote the number of syllables: (5) (7) (5). Realizing that I had inadvertently written a forensic haiku, I smiled. “Huh. That’s kinda cool,” I chuckled. Not surprisingly, my paranoid client thought I was talking about him. Our session didn’t last much longer that day.
Over the next several weeks I found myself coming up with haikus that captured some of the more memorable moments of abnormality and psychopathology that were becoming the staple of my job. But it was not until I came to prison that I was introduced to the broader concept of the criminal subculture that one simply does not see with the mentally ill in a hospital or community setting.
I should take a moment to point out what is probably pretty obvious to most people with a working frontal lobe but which seems to have eluded the mental grasp of most politicians ever since the issue of what to do with offenders was first recognized as a deciding factor in the career of those seeking to become successful bureaucrats:
The prison system in the United States is – and always has been – fatally flawed.
With the exception of a few short-lived reform initiatives, the operational ideology of correctional institutions has shifted from overt punishment to dispassionate warehousing and back again, ad nauseum, guided only by the direction of whatever political winds are blowing at any given point in time.
Today, the pendulum has swung more toward the side of reform and rehabilitation. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the pendulum is once again beginning its political journey away from the strictly punitive stance that has dominated both the traditional public view of prisons and the culture of corrections over the last 200 years.
But these institutions of lower learning do little to rehabilitate criminals. Their primary function is, by necessity, simply to keep offenders separated from society until their release. Prisons are woefully ill-prepared to meet the needs of the offender population. The overcrowded conditions and lack of resources are a recipe for failure. It is not unusual for there to be as many as 200 inmates for every 1 correctional officer and the numbers are even more dismal for educational and vocational programming. Even public schools have better staffing ratios.
Because of this, the ideas of increasing offender accountability and fostering a sense of victim empathy have become lofty ideals that offer little in the way of practical application. The only thing many criminals ever regret is having been caught. The idea of reform gets lost in the reality of life behind bars. When someone goes to prison, they are surrounded by other criminals whose main goal is to become more successful at profiting from breaking the law when they get out.
But that is not to say that some of them don’t want to lead a better life – a life free from crime. It’s just that the deck is not exactly stacked in their favor. They have few opportunities to acquire marketable skills while they are locked up (after all, there are only so many license plates any state needs) and the limited useful programming that is available is constantly being reduced by short-sighted budget cuts.
Every day an offender is kept away from the outside world is another 24 hours of interpersonal deterioration. And when they finally do release from prison, it is with little more than forty dollars in gate money and whatever meager savings they have amassed over the years at 32 cents an hour. Add to that the fact that their criminal record doesn’t make them the most desirable prospect in the eyes of most employers and I’d say it is surprising that the recidivism rate is not even higher.
In over a decade working as a clinical and forensic psychologist, I have had the opportunity to see just about every facet of the criminal career: from the planning and commission of crime, to arrest and trial, through incarceration, and ultimately release and reintegration. And I’ve witnessed first-hand the tragedy of human suffering, the depravity of the sociopathic mind, the desperation and fear of the lost and lonely, and the myriad cracks in a system designed to protect us.
But I’ve also seen the resilience of human nature, the creativity and potential of men and women who have been forgotten or discarded by society, and the power of the struggle to become something better.