The recent police shooting of Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill man in Brooklyn underscores the necessity of mental health awarenss in the black community and the law enforcement.

Like Saheed, my brother is also mentally ill (schizophrenia) and unfortunately also a felon. After reading about Saheed’s story I wondered if there are two fates for mentally ill black men in America: Death or Imprisonment.

My brother was arrested for having a gun and ammunition at age 16. He spent time awaiting trial at Rikers Island and then eventually served time in a facility not far from NYC. When he returned home he was not the same teenager that left. Statistically trauma will make a mental illness that is lying dormant come to the surface. I am convinced this is what happened to my brother, he was a young teenager sent to an adult facility with hard core felons. During one of his breakdowns he confessed to me that he had been beaten and raped while locked up and that he was ashamed.

From his first stint at Rikers, he has been arrested multiple times and even a victim of a crime,( a stabbing by a vigilante bodega owner) and spent years medicating himself with illegal drugs. At 50 he lives in a court supervised group home in the Bronx.

I often wonder what life would be like for my brother if he had not served the time he did as a teenager, just like wonder if Saheed would be alive and thriving if he had the mental health treatment he needed and support from his family.

Last week I attended the Redesigning the System program at the Art Institute. Kim Foxx stated that the prosecutor’s office is not the gatekeeper for mental health, jobs and other necessities needed in communities and sadly once a person reaches her office they are already in a bad predicament. She also stated that many of people locked up suffer from some mental illness and or drug addiction.

There are many systematic issues that create the current climate of over-incarceration of black men in this country. Mental illness and lack of treatment –be it because of the lack of health care, systematic bias as well as personal and family stigmas to seeking help is creating unnecessary convictions and sentences.

I hope Envisioning Justice will address mental health issues among people of color in Chicago and how many of these people are adding to the statistics of who is locked up in this city, unnecessarily.