© 2021
1941 - 2021 /// Support the next 80 years.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Psychiatrist Recalls the Chaos of CA Prison Facilities

Michael Coghlan

Dr. O’Neil Dillon served as the lead psychiatrist at Solano and San Quentin state prisons from 1994 to 2000. Before working in the California state prison system, Dr. Dillon practiced general psychiatry in Berkeley at Herrick Memorial Hospital and Alta Bates Hospital. He also serves as President of the Northern California Psychiatric Society.

During his time overseeing the prisons’ mental health facilities, Dr. Dillon said intense overcrowding created an almost perpetual state of crisis. KALW’s Leah Rose spoke with Dr. Dillon to discuss his days treating mentally ill prisoners and the therapeutic challenges he faced working in a volatile and chaotic environment.

Interview Excerpts:

“The need was overwhelming. The overcrowding -- although the department of corrections was doing their best to try and get staff in there and the psychiatric programs were being attempted to be staffed -- the federal courts got it right. The overcrowding is what’s been leading to the prisons problems and so there was no way in the world that you could feel that you … have stabilized a situation in an institution. There were cases that you couldn’t get to, and that wears on you.”

“You have certain patients who are in an acute disorganized state. They’re inside a cell; you’re talking to them through a port; you’re looking at them through a window and then there’s a handcuff port in the door; the door is closed. And the question is, how do you make a connection in such a situation with someone who is in an acutely disorganized state and very often totally enraged at any and everybody? And I realized in certain circumstances that there was no way this inmate, this patient was going to be able to process anything I said."

“If an inmate did something positive...you could write up what was called a laudatory note that you would put in their record. And I would do that with inmates who pointed out an issue, a security issue. We had inmates who were trained in Vietnam for escape issues and now they were in prison. And by God, these were professionally trained escape artists from the military and one guy pointed out to us in the infirmary all of the security risks that he was noticing in the cell he was in. And I thought that that was a very helpful thing for him to do so you write up a laudatory note and put it in his file.”

Click the audio player above to listen to the complete conversation.