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Empire, Mental Health and Mass Incarceration

andre empire

By Muna Mire

Last week’s Empire was one of most tension-filled, nail-biting episodes I’ve seen yet. With Luscious’s kingdom under siege by the enemy (aided by a jilted Anika), the family pulls together — and Dre falls apart. Still not recovered from the fall out with his father after attempting to appoint himself interim CEO (things got nasty when Dad called out what he saw as wanting to “fit in” with white people in his son), Dre starts to slip off the rails.

There are certain things lacking about the show’s portrayal of mental illness, to be sure. Elaine G. Flores explains for The Root, “it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing but Andre seems to get triggered by everything. It seems to change every second, but that’s not how it works. It’s just one unbelievable aspect of his behavior. He’s wearing a business suit as he cries in the shower. He’s playing Russian roulette. He’s raging and knocking things over. He is doing everything. This is all well-intentioned but unrealistic, and stigmatizes a real health issue.”
The show takes major liberties — often using hyperbole — to engage the viewer. It’s a soap opera. And sometimes, that can be stigmatizing.

What the show gets right with respect to mental health and stigma however, is that psychiatric confinement is a terrifying and brutal ordeal not unlike mass incarceration. In fact, not only do U.S. prisons house more than 10 times as many mentally ill people as state hospitals, but as we saw on the show, getting locked up for mental illness can strip you of all your rights. Watching Dre wrestled to the ground by several uniformed men in what reminded me of the Eric Garner chokehold after being locked in the conference room by his father was, well, triggering. His wife crying and rocking in the corner, those uniformed officials injected him with an unknown substance and he lost consciousness before being carted away to god-knows-where for 48 hours against his will. Who deserves that?

Nationwide, mentally ill people (and Black people living with mental illness in particular) are targeted by law enforcement, both on the streets and on the inside once they’ve been admitted to massive facilities designed specifically to incarcerate the mentally ill. Do we think of these as part of the prison industrial complex? Most of the time, people admitted to facilities like the one in Chicago designed to incarcerate the mentally ill who have committed crimes are criminalized because they are mentally ill.

As we go into this week’s episode and catch up with Dre — who has now been incarcerated against his will — I can’t help but think about Black people living with mental illness in real life. People like the unarmed Black bipolar man who was recently shot and killed by Georgia police. People with a lot less privilege than Andre Lyon. Those Black Lives Matter too, and they are being incarcerated, surveilled, beaten, and killed — are our movements paying attention?

Photo: Empire/Fox