A new story by the L.A. Times highlights former California death row prisoner Craigen Armstrong’s instrumental role in building a peer-prisoner mental health treatment program in the Los Angeles Twin Towers Correctional Facility, an effort which has helped hundreds of prisoners with severe mental illness. While awaiting retrial, Mr. Armstrong established the “mental health assistant” role to support and treat fellow prisoners, and has developed training materials for jails and prisons across the country to replicate his program’s success. 

Mr. Armstrong was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of three brothers in gang-related conflicts in 2001. He maintains that he is innocent of one of the murders, and the other two were committed in self-defense. In 2016, the California Supreme Court unanimously overturned his convictions based on the trial judge’s decision to remove a juror for “failing to deliberate.” The Court held that “the record does not show as a demonstrable reality that the juror was unable to perform her duty,” and “the error compels reversal of the judgment in its entirety.” Mr. Armstrong was then moved from death row in San Quentin State Prison to the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail to await retrial or negotiate a plea. He joined the existing mental health program at the adjacent Twin Towers Facility, which he perceived as safer, because it offered privileges and privacy in exchange for assisting with tasks such as cleaning and distributing food.  

However, Mr. Armstrong soon found a passion for mental health counseling and dedicated himself to expanding the fledging program. Twin Towers houses over two thousand prisoners, with over half suffering from serious mental illness—it has been called the “largest mental institution in the country.” With fellow prisoner Adrian Berumen, Mr. Armstrong expanded the role from an aide-type position to a peer counselor who forms strong bonds with the residents, develops therapeutic and enrichment activities, and deescalates conflicts. They recruited new prisoners and developed a training curriculum. They also made conscientious changes to humanize the participants, referring to the men they helped as “patients” and themselves as “mental health assistants.” The pair coauthored a book, The Solution: Mental Health Assistants, released in 2020, and shared their experiences with universities and law enforcement groups.  

Local officials have lauded Mr. Armstrong’s work. “I’m really impressed with the innovation of the program and the impact that it has on our incarcerated community who suffer from mental illness,” said Sheriff Robert Luna of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department at a recent jail event honoring the mental health assistants. According to the program website, a 2019 corrections survey found a 600% decrease in self-harm incidents in the program’s unit compared to other units in the jail. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this summer to expand the program six-fold by 2025. “This is a vital program,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis. “This type of assistance is so critically important. It will save lives. It will save costs.”  

The program has benefited participants, jail employees, and mental health assistants alike. “With mental illness, it takes trust, and this place makes you more receptive to accept the help you need,” said a patient. “It is like family here,” said another. Deputies reported less stress as the mental health assistants helped the patients find stability and progress. And Mr. Armstrong finds comfort and motivation in the work. “A lot of us take these paths in life, we go down these destructive paths…we may be responsible for harm, but it really is a lack of self-worth,” Mr. Armstrong told mental health assistants at the recent event. “We put together our own training and our curriculum so that when guys come over, they’re prepared to be in this environment, and not only just be here but really thrive and persist and learn to grow.” He sees this type of program as “the remedy or the solution to recidivism and reduce incarceration.”  


Thomas Curwen, Seeking redemp­tion: A death row inmate’s jour­ney into L.A. County’s largest psych ward, L.A. Times, December 13, 2023; Inmate Mental Health Assistants Website; Craigen Armstrong and Adrian Berumen, The Solution: Mental Health Assistants, November 16, 2020; People v. Armstrong (Cal. 2016).