This story is over 5 years old.

Pen Pals

Prison Makes You Crazy

It’s awe-inspiring to imagine how I did over six years in jails without becoming completely nuts. Inside I saw the illest shit, it was like a psych ward with crazies everywhere yelling and drooling.
Κείμενο Bert Burykill

I got the above letter from a random girl that a friend in the street met at a mental rehab inpatient group, and it’s humorous, albeit a little sad. I still am compelled to chuckle when I read her line, “I’m sure you’ll make it through fine. I survived my three weeks.” It’s awe-inspiring to imagine how I did over six years in jails without becoming completely nuts. I’ve seen a lot of country or suburban white guys go into prison and come out acting, talking, and walking like they grew up in the projects. Even now I feel like I’m perpetrating a fraud living this life as a pseudonym, Bert Burykill. What if I’d never been arrested? Where would my head be now? The possibilities are endless, but I got caught and forever altered my existence.


Sometimes I think there is a very decent chance that I suffer from a rare form of an unknown mental illness that terrorizes confused dummies from an over-privileged, under-appreciated background. The snapshot of my life as a convict who spent much of his 20s in prison is incomprehensible when you consider where I grew up, the schools I attended, and my everyday demeanor. The average duck is shocked to learn what I’ve done and where I’ve been. I’ve honestly never met anyone in prison from a remotely similar background as me. College graduates do not really exist in prison, and if you meet someone who claims they’ve been to college, they’re lying.

Of course, I’m probably 100 percent sane, and just prone to feloniously disgusting decision-making. However, there are mega-loads of authentic mentally ill, suffering, beyond-help nut jobs dwellin’ in prisons, and many have little chance of staying free. I read a mind-blowing statistic that in 1973 there were 93,000 heads in mental hospitals in New York, and in 2000, there were only 5,000 (the number has dropped even more by now). That’s upsetting, especially when the heads in jails and prisons went up by over 100,000 since then. The days of Randolph Patrick McMurphy are over… I remember when I was younger I knew I’d be arrested someday, but I figured I’d just bug out, act crazy, and get away with it. That plan didn’t pan out.

350,000 is a conservative estimate for how many mentally ill prisoners we have in this country, but I can guarantee it’s higher than that, ‘cause so many of us go undiagnosed. Riker’s Island is the biggest psychiatric facility in the world.


When I went through Riker’s I was sent through the C-95 building, which is for the mentally ill and drug-addicted. I was there very briefly, but I saw the illest shit imaginable. It was like being at a psych ward… crazies everywhere yelling and drooling, and then dudes like me just trying to play the system to get some drugs and live in a semi-relaxed environment. I don’t know a lot about mental illness, but I’m going to guess that most of these guys were fucked up from the medication they were taking but who knows?

Even though I love blogging for VICE, I wonder if this is a healthy cathartic outlet for me, or if it’s assisting in keeping me in an incarcerated mindset. I find everything I’ve been through truly fascinating, but I wish I was just dreaming and it wasn’t my reality, or I was reading about someone else. I hope to become more and more detached and just be a prison correspondent, but I’m not close to being done yet. I have a ton more outpatient groups to go through, because I’m having trouble leaving everything of my old life behind. They have their teeth sunk in me and the hold is strong. I’m under a magnifying glass and one false move, and I’ll be starting over again. Even though I’m free I still have so many restrictions on me that I’m far from normal, so it’s difficult to get out of the mindset of someone who has a problem.

Luckily, I have a lot of support. A bunch of people who go through the system have no support, or if they are lucky enough to have some, lots of it is the wrong kind. I watched that show Intervention the other night, and I wonder about that “tough love” theory and how it would’ve worked for me. Truthfully, if my family and girl had simply left me ‘cause I refused to obey the law repeatedly, I think there is a good chance I would’ve gone off the deep end. Lots of people probably become more mentally ill ‘cause they have nobody to love and no one to live for. On the other hand, maybe without people enabling me with their unconditional love I would’ve reached a “bottom,” and realized that my life isn’t a game to be gambled on. It’s difficult to know, but I empathize deeply with guys I meet in the system who have nothing, and it’s not hard to understand why they behave like lunatics who are ready to die with absolutely nothing to lose. What’s more difficult to comprehend is why someone like me who has everything to gain and so much to lose would ever play with his freedom. That’s why a lot of heads would observe me from afar assuming I suffer from some severe debilitating mental illness, and be like, “Get that boy some Ritalin, Prozac, Lithium, Trazodone, Levitra Cocktail Sauce, STAT!” But I’m too crazy to even know if I’m crazy.

Previously – The People You Meet on Rikers