a bird and a bottle

Isolation, Mental Illness & Incarceration
March 9, 2007, 8:32 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, politics


I’ve written before about this country’s troubled relationship (to put it euphemistically) with mentally ill men and women who are incarcerated. While the prison system on the whole is desperately in need of reform, it’s in our treatment of mentally ill prisoners that the deficiencies and cruelties in the system are magnified. Consider this case, one of many mentioned in today’s NY Times article about mental illness and suicide in prisons:

laced in solitary confinement in a Massachusetts prison, Mark Cunningham tried to kill himself last year, advocates for inmates say.

Mr. Cunningham cut his legs and arms. He tried to hang himself with a tube from a breathing machine he used for sleep apnea. He smashed the machine to get a sharp fragment to slice his neck and ate pieces of it, hoping to cause internal bleeding. Five weeks ago, after being placed in solitary confinement again, Mr. Cunningham, 37, hanged himself.

With that, Mr. Cunningham, who lawyers said had a long history of mental illness, including depression, became the 13th inmate to commit suicide in Massachusetts since November 2004.

That’s right. In many states in the U.S., not only do we incarcerate mentally ill men and women whose crimes arise — at least in part — out of their mental illness, but we also often put these men and women (though particularly men) in solitary isolation. When confined solitarily, these men and women spend 23 hours each day alone in a small cell, and are only let out to shower and spend time in a small caged-in area outside (though still alone). This isolation is anti-therapeutic and only exacerbates their mental illnesses and puts them at greater risk for suicide. Mr. Cunningham’s case is not unique — or even unusual. He is among 18 Massachusetts mentally ill inmates who committed suicide, or attempted to, while in solitary confinement in recent years, and who are described in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday against the state.

The situation is no better in other states:

Several states, including Connecticut, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin, have faced lawsuits that have recently been resolved by settlements or court orders requiring improvements in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Those changes include more frequent monitoring, better training of corrections officers and removal of fixtures that could be used for hangings.

In January, Indiana agreed to stop putting some mentally ill inmates in isolation cells. While not all agreements in other states have resulted in excluding mentally ill prisoners from isolation, many have called for better screening or monitoring of isolated inmates.

In California, after a record number of prison suicides — 44 — in 2005, a special master appointed by a federal judge reported that inmates “in overcrowded and understaffed administration segregation units are killing themselves in unprecedented numbers.” The judge, Lawrence Karlton, ordered the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to spend more than $600 million to improve mental health services.

And the piece de la resistance? My home state of New York, where the Legislature last year passed a bill that would prohibit the state Department of Corrections from placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement. And what happened? Then-Govt. Pataki vetoed it.

It’s appalling to me that we treat mentally ill men and women who offend as badly as others who are incarcerated. We have set the bar for legal insanity so high that very few people can meet it, despite serious and often debilitating mental illness. Isolating mentally ill men and women takes this cruelty one large step further — not only will we incarcerate mentally ill men and women, but we will now also isolate them, placing them in situations that exacerbate their illnesses. Solitary (which, by the way, is the norm in Supermax facilities) is inhumane for anyone; when foisted on the mentally ill and suicidal, it is unimaginably twisted.


7 Comments so far
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Agreed on all counts. As problematic as the historical connection between prisons and mental institutions may be for the latter (cf. Foucault), there’s little question that solitary confinement in prison is by far the worst of the options.
Solitary is not only cruel and inhumane but enormously expensive – so much so that serious mental care is not all that pricey in comparison. Now that we’ve allocated the money, perhaps decent legislator’s will find a way to direct it toward more humane treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Comment by professorplum

[…] the mentally ill and their incarceration rates in U.S. prisons the blogger for A Bird and a Bottle writes: It’s appalling to me that we treat mentally ill men and women who offend as badly as others who […]

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I would consider isolation, particularly in prisons rather than asylums, to be preferable to unsupervised free social mixing. Inmates should not be ‘normalized’ to criminal and insane behavior; this is a *huge* problem with prisons.

The ideal would be for inmates to socialize primarily with healthy members of society, and occasionally with other inmates under supervision with a view towards mutual support through treatment, with minimal opportunity to reinforce antisocial behavior. The *worst* people for an inmate of a prison to associate with are other members of prison gangs; ‘free’ socializing *forces* the formation of prison gangs.

The problem is not isolation per se, it’s isolation as punishment, in unpleasant conditions with enforced boredom: the classic dark, dank, solitary cell. If a cell is safe and comfortable, with the illusion of privacy maintained as much as is practical, and the inmate allowed access to socialization substitutes, eg books, movies, and the inmate is visited at least every few days by positive influences, eg psychologist, family members, and chaplain, then isolation could be *far* more helpful than harmful.

Comment by Ash

My son has suffered with mental illness since age nine. He has been in and out of the jail system in Charlotte NC for years. He applied for local assistance and was turned down, He applied for Disability with NC appealed twice and was turned down. He has not been able to hold a job for the last ten years and without medication turns to street drugs. Joshua is 28 comes from a good loving family and is himself a loving and kind person with an illness he did not ask to be born with. What he has experienced in his young life very few people would live to tell very few people could believe. As I said he has a loving family who has helped with his illness. On May 2, 2006 we received word that a drug program would take him on for free medication and mail the medication to his home. We had moved over the line to SC and applied for assistance once again and were turned down on both appeals. We wrote the governor Mark Sanford a letter requesting assistance for his disability case to be reconsidered. In May of 2006 Josh walked down the road from our home and did not come back. This has happened before and one time a local pastor a week returned him home later. He was badly beaten no shirt on. His feet were bleeding and infected from walking. This is what he dose he walks and walks when he is experiencing a Hypo Mania attack. It has been difficult explaining to local police when we place a missing person report. Josh speaks two languages and has an IQ of 160. On May 6th Josh was arrested. Josh ask a young lady for a ride from a local mall where he met her in the parking lot. The women were the same age as Josh and agreed to give him a lift. Josh had asked that she drive him to a friend’s house, as all he wanted to do was sleep. During the drive the women turned took a wrong turn into what was a “bad” neighborhood. Josh got upset and told her never to come to this neighborhood that drugs and bad people lived there. As Josh raised his voice she too panicked they argued and she stopped the car. Josh at that time was beside himself with fear and confusion. He asked that she leave the car he slid over in the drivers seat and left her standing there. Josh went as planned to his friends house and slept for two days. On the third day he was found and arrested. The charges were as follows: Rape, assault, robbery (the car) kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon (the car) and larceny of a motor vehicle. Basically every thing you can imagine the DA charged him with seeing him has a cruel violent rapist. The charges for rape and assault were dropped during the hearing because the victim admitted he never touched her or came near her in a violent way. To our shock and mortification he was charged with kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon again (the car) On November 7 the 2007 he was sentenced by Judge Gentry Caudill Charlotte NC to serve 22 years in the state prison. A complete medical report was given the judge during the sentencing phase but the Judge tossed it aside without recognition. And said to Joshua as he stood there confused “Good luck with your Bi Polar disorder” and he smiled. We are of course looking into why his Attorney did not use any of his mental history with ten years of documentation supplied. Josh was given a plea bargan of four years if he pleaded guilty to the rape and other charges. Josh would have had to register as a rapist and turned the plea-bargain down with his attorneys advise that he could beat the charges. We do not understand the justice system particularly NC and trusted his attorney. God were we wrong in doing so and now Josh is paying for those mistakes. He now sits in the Lanesboro prison with hard-core criminals. His life is in jeopardy every day. Although he is on medication his illness has progressed due to the constant stress he deal with. Not to mention his food being stolen having to pay “cell” taxes to inmates the constant noise and absolutely no one to talk to. Josh stays in his cell 90% of the time we send him books, as he loves to read. WE see him deteriorating in front of our eyes we cry together each time we see him because the tears just come. We try to give him hope with his appeal but in our heart we all know our chances (due to NC law) our very slim if not none existing. Our son may be incarcerated but his whole family is in prison. Our lives will no longer be the same I personally have never endured such deep pain and suffering in may life it is everyday the worry is overwhelming at times. Our lives will never be the same. I keep asking my self how could this happen my son is a good person he has never hurt anyone in his life. With the right medications on a consistent basis he could lead a productive life. Josh is not being punished for taking a car but for his disorder of which he attempted numerous times to get help for and was turned down by the same system that has put him away for 22 years of his life.

The sad part is NO one cares.

Comment by deborah

The story about JOSH is heartbreaking and i believe every word! Something needs to be done.
Also this is a good article:

The YEAR OF 2007… a YEAR of Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Crooked County style

Just click on link above in red

Comment by crookedcountycrooks

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