In this anguished and impeccably researched account, psychiatrist Montross (Falling into the Fire) examines how the American justice system fails to protect, treat, and rehabilitate incarcerated people with mental health issues. Drawing on her experiences conducting competency evaluations for detainees, and visiting numerous prisons around the country, Montross argues that minorities, the impoverished, and the mentally ill are disproportionately targeted for harsher sentences, and that prisoners are too often left to languish in solitary confinement, where sensory deprivation can worsen, or even cause, mental instability. At a juvenile detention center, she learns that teenagers there can be kept for up to a year in solitary—despite studies showing the importance of human contact for the developing brain. Chicago’s Cook County Jail offers a rare glimpse of hope, as Montross sits in on a cognitive behavioral group therapy session where inmates reflect on their pasts in order to process their traumas. In the book’s final section, she offers practical solutions, including changes to the probation and parole systems that would give the formerly incarcerated better resources for getting their lives back on track, and mandatory periodic mental health evaluations for all inmates. This eye-opening call for reform exposes an overlooked crisis in America’s prisons. Agent: Kris Dahl, ICM Partners. (July)Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated this was the author's first book. It also misstated that the author met a teenager who had spent a year in solitary confinement at a juvenile detention facility.
Through her work as a psychiatrist, determining whether someone is competent enough to stand trial, Montross (Falling into the Fire) found herself returning to one question: Do they belong in a jail or a mental health hospital? This led her to begin researching the history of the U.S. criminal legal system and realizing that the decision—treatment or punishment—was often an arbitrary one. Interviews with correctional officers and others who work in American jails and prisons show examples of people being incarcerated when they should be hospitalized, and how the decline of psychiatric facilities in the late 20th century, combined with a lack of social services, has led to the criminalization of mental illness. Powerful chapters follow Montross to Chicago's Cook County Jail, as well as Northern in CT, meeting people for whom jail or prison is seen as the lone treatment option. According to the author, we have abandoned the goal of rehabilitation—she explains this as she visits prisons in Norway and Sweden, which focus on rehabilitation and reentry, calls for a more humane system in the United States, and reminds us that we have lost empathy for those who are not at the forefront of our thoughts. VERDICT With consideration and compassion, Montross has written a must-read that asks us to consider who our system is leaving behind.—Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal
A searing indictment of a system in which far too many people “languish within prisons and jails because of their poverty, their race, their addiction, or their mental illness.”
Psychiatrist Montross, who is accustomed to treating mentally ill clients in hospital settings, decided to explore what happened to similar people who landed in the American prison system. What she learned was horrifying—and not just for the inmates. Through her firsthand experiences and diligent research, she concludes that everybody in American society—the imprisoned mentally ill, the rest of the prison population, prison staff, police, attorneys, judges, jurors in criminal trials, loved ones in the free world, residents of neighborhoods into which former inmates have been released, and taxpayers whose money pays for punishment instead of rehabilitation—experiences harm from the status quo. Montross divides the book into three parts—“Our Prisoners,” “Our Prisons,” and “Our Choice”—each undergirded by copious anecdotes involving real people in distress. In the first section, the author explains why so many obviously mentally ill women and men end up in prison. As she notes, most crimes they commit are caused, at least in part, by their mental illness, and prison staff members are woefully unqualified to deal with psychiatric issues effectively. The second section includes chilling case studies of ineffective incarceration, especially regarding solitary confinement. The final section offers some hope, as Montross chronicles her research in Norway, where prisons have drastically lowered recidivism rates by emphasizing human rehabilitation. So why does the U.S. refuse to learn from such success stories? Montross consistently wrestles with that conundrum, but answers are elusive. In conclusion, the author quotes James Baldwin: “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In this revelatory book, the author faces the problem head-on. Read this and then turn to Jason Hardy’s The Second Chance Club to learn more about what happens after inmates are released.
Yet another eye-opening, powerful demonstration of the profound structural problems with mass incarceration in the U.S.
A haunting and harrowing indictment of the deep psychological damage inflicted by the nation’s punitive structures… Montross is a gifted, often compelling storyteller… [a] significant achievement. I hope that she successfully pricks the nation’s conscience about our shameful punishment of mental illness. It is impossible to read her captivating account without concluding that our various departments of corrections are themselves in intense need of correcting.”—Justin Driver, New York Times Book Review
“Revelatory…[An] eye-opening, powerful demonstration of the profound structural problems with mass incarceration in the U.S.” – Kirkus (starred review)
“ Impeccably researched….Offers practical solutions, including changes to the probation and parole systems that would give the formerly incarcerated better resources for getting their lives back on track, and mandatory periodic mental health evaluations for all inmates. This eye-opening call for reform exposes an overlooked crisis in America’s prisons.”—Publishers Weekly
"‘What the eye does not see the heart cannot feel,’ the saying goes. In this vivid account, Dr. Montross takes us to see close-up her encounters with a tiny percent of the 350,000 mentally ill people in U.S. prisons and jails. What are these anguished souls doing there? They need healing help and a place of safety, not a punishing environment, quick to maintain order with tear gas, beatings, solitary confinement...or with unconscionable neglect. In my 30 plus years of prison work, I've met all too many of these trapped, suffering souls. Let us trust in the goodness of our citizens, that moved by Dr. Montross's vivid witness, eyes will see and hearts will feel to shoulder the urgent reform of a system long in need of radical change.”—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
“An uncommonly beautiful writer, Dr. Christine Montross brings a scientist’s rigor and a clinician’s compassion to her examination of the profoundly broken U.S. incarceration system. Waiting For an Echo lays bare the appalling human suffering that occurs every day in our prisons and jails—and points us toward a better way.”—David C. Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project
“Waiting for an Echo is a towering indictment, a shocking expose, and somehow also an elegiac ode to those that society has left behind. Christine Montross, a psychiatrist, writes from inside the ranks of our broken mental health system, but she does so with a poet's eye, bringing to life the human toll behind the horrifying statistics. The result is a rallying cry that is both personal and universal—and, hopefully, one that we will not be able to ignore.”—Susannah Cahalan, author of The Great Pretender and Brain on Fire
“Waiting for an Echo is an amazing and accurate account of what our criminal legal system has evolved into. Capturing both problems and solutions, Dr. Montross takes us all around the globe to give examples of what works, what doesn’t work, and why. This book should be should be required reading for all judges, district attorneys and correctional officers.”—Susan Burton, Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project and author of Becoming Ms. Burton
“This is a tremendously important, transformative book. Dr. Montross poignantly captures the unnecessarily brutal experience of individuals incarcerated in America. As a Nation, we should heed her call for meaningful change to restore basic humanity.”—Ellen Gallagher, Department of Homeland Security Attorney and whistleblower
“In Waiting for an Echo, Christine Montross writes with intelligence, insight, compassion and plain good sense about the state of incarceration in the early 21st century. With a keen eye and a sense of decency she correctly assesses the shortcomings of our present system and takes us on her very personal journey of inquiry into the of the way we do prison and jail in the United States. She observes that ‘When the treating facility is a prison safety, security and punishment necessarily take precedence over recovery and care.’ This is the essence of the issue we need to confront, the mentally ill do not belong in prison or jail and Dr. Montross eloquently tells us why.”—Martin Horn, Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections at the John Jay College, City University of New York
“Waiting for an Echo is a literary masterpiece that exposes the dark side of our criminal justice system and then provides a kind and wise vision for a better way to do it. Too often we, the public, ignore what goes on in prison, we say ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’ and then abuses proliferate in the darkness. When evidence of torture surfaces — the beatings, the rapes (too often by staff), the innocents who spend decades behind bars, the prisoners driven stark raving mad by prolonged solitary confinement — we turn away, ‘it's too dark.’ Dr. Montross exposes the underside and the folly of our criminal justice system, but with poignant stories and explanations of how human psychology works inside the carceral system just as in the lives of all of us, making the narrative accessible and compelling. She shares the understanding needed for us to see the humanity of those we have locked away, and the courage to seek a better way. She provides a much-needed path forward, a vision of how much better we could do criminal justice and help those who have lost their way regain their humanity.”—Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. professor at The Wright Institute and author of Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation