By Joseph Dunsay

July is mad pride month. This has personal meaning to me, because I am a mad person, a person who has been through the mental health system. Mad people in New Jersey face systematic discrimination from the state that can deprive them of their freedom without due process. They can be incarcerated and forcibly injected with drugs without ever being charged with a crime. In my experience, psychiatric wards are more comfortable than prisons and have better food, but they still have locked doors that prevent psychiatric patients from seeing loved ones or going about their daily lives. The drugs given to mad people involuntarily also have unpleasant side effects. Some of them can be quite dangerous. We should fight for the rights of mad people to live free of this coercive psychiatric system.

Disability Rights New Jersey has a web page about the process for involuntarily committing a mad person in a hospital where the police or EMTs have taken him. In addition to seeing the medical staff of the hospital, the mad person sees a screener within 24 hours. If the screener decides to keep the mad person, he can be locked in the hospital for hours awaiting a court order for commitment. In 2021, this could take up to 72 hours. This time was increased to 144 hours in 2023. After that, the mad person gets a court hearing within 20 days of the initial screening. This is the first time he sees a judge and the first time a lawyer helps him with his case. If the judge decides to continue the commitment, periodic hearings take place after 3, 9, and 12 months and then annually.

Mad people are involuntarily committed if they are a danger to themselves or others. “A danger to themselves or others” does not mean they did risky behavior that endangered themselves or others. The statute 30:4-27 defines “dangerous to self” and “dangerous to others or property”. It states that a mad person is dangerous to self if it is “probable that substantial bodily injury, serious physical harm, or death will result within the reasonably foreseeable future,” and that he is dangerous to others or property if “there is a substantial likelihood that the person will inflict serious bodily harm upon another person or cause serious property damage within the reasonably foreseeable future.” This means mad people are not locked up and forcibly drugged because of the things they did, but rather for the pre-crime of the things they might do in the future.

While predictions of future harm may be based on a mad person’s past actions, it still stands that his rights are violated without the state specifying any crime that he might have committed. This is not the only way that mad people are denied due process. I am not a lawyer, but I have been a defendant in psychiatric courts and criminal courts enough times to see the differences between those systems that put mad people at a disadvantage.

A mad person is not granted bail, which means the process is the punishment as he must wait a long time incarcerated before a hearing. When a mad person exercises his right to remain silent, this is labeled “guarding behavior” and given as a reason to lock him up longer.

Psychiatrists will talk to a mad person every day during the incarceration to gather evidence to use against him in court, and the mad person does not have a lawyer with him during these interrogations. Police and EMTs will gather information from those who know the mad person, and the psychiatrist will present these testimonies as medical facts in court without the opportunity to cross-examine the original witnesses. There is no plea bargaining, because the court process is easy for the psychiatrist and difficult for the mad person. The detention is not a sentence for a specific crime, but rather an open-ended incarceration until the mad person has convinced the psychiatrist that he is compliant.

The problems faced by mad people can affect a large portion of New Jersey’s population. According to NAMI, over a million adults in New Jersey have a mental illness.The injustices these mad people can face are a travesty, but fortunately there is a movement to fight for their rights.

The mad pride movement, also known as the psychiatric survivor movement, seeks equality for mad people. Please join us for our mad pride rally this July 28th to advance the cause of liberty and equality. Visit https://mindfreedom.org/ for more information on state force and coercion with people struggling with mental illness. Contact northchair@njlp.org to volunteer for more mad activism.