Heroic Actions for Prisoners’ Human Rights

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness7 Comments

still photo from the Psychologist Ward New York Times video

A Psychologist Warden in Chicago and a Federal Court Decision in California address Prisoners’ Human Rights

There are now 10 times as many mentally ill people in the nation’s 5000 jails and prisons as there are in state mental institutions. And these prisoners are more likely to be kept in solitary confinement and to be beaten by guards and other inmates. However, two new developments signal hope for the future.

The first is the selection of Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, as warden of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, one of the largest jails in the country. As many as 1/3 of its 8,000 inmates are mentally ill. Under her guidance, all inmates upon arrival are screened to see if they have a mental illness and if so, are given treatment. That information is then forwarded to judges before arraignment with the hope that the inmate might receive mental health care instead of a jail sentence. The jail also enrolls arriving inmates in health insurance so that they can receive basic case management upon their release.

Before becoming warden, Dr. Tapia ran the mental health transition center in the jail, which has become the centerpiece of her efforts to overhaul the entire jail. Five days a week, a group of inmates with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia receive cognitive behavioral therapy, job readiness skills and extra recreation instead of wasting away in solitary. None of the 43 former inmates who attended the program before being released have reoffended or been rearrested which attests to the success of Dr. Tapia’s forethought about after care. Dr. Tapia says that the whole time she worked as the jail psychologist, she made a point of getting to know the corrections officers, which made her transition to warden easier. This is a humane approach that should be adopted by Rikers in New York and the Twin Towers in Los Angeles.

The 2nd positive move to decrease the incarceration of the mentally ill in solitary confinement came last week in a landmark case in federal court in which California agreed to overhaul the state’s use of solitary confinement. Under the settlement, prisoners will no longer be sent to isolation indefinitely. Some inmates in California have been in isolation for 10, 20, even 30 years. Craig Haney, a psychologist who studied the effects of isolation on prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California used the term “social death” to describe the impact on prisoners’ psyches. Now, inmates will not be held in isolation for more than 10 consecutive years.

The inmates who brought the lawsuit said in a written statement released by their lawyers: “This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California and across the country. The prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are full human beings.”

7 Comments on “Heroic Actions for Prisoners’ Human Rights”

  1. Cindy Allyn

    Great for the way the Chicago jail handles the mentally ill–on California ,10 years of solitary is very inhumane even though it is considered an improvement.

  2. Kim

    It’s good to hear of at least one jail where an effort is made to address mental illness. I was surprised to hear that only 1/3 of inmates can be evaluated as “mentally ill.” One might say that it would be at least 3/3 because unless one has “chosen” to go to jail in protest or really got caught up in a mistake (like the unfortunate Sandra Bland who ended up dead in jail for having a broken tail light), many “offenses” are symptomatic of someone not living in “right balance” on a spiritual, psychological, or physiological level. So even someone in jail for so minor an offense as lighting up a marijuana cigarette in a public place or selling a bag of weed might have “issues” to address and could use counseling. Of course, that’s far different than the very serious problems of schizophrenia, bipolar disease, or desperate depression. Anyhow, in a better world, we’d spend a whole lot more money on preventative therapeutic care than on prison punishment, but at least dealing with mental health needs in jail or prison is one tiny step in the right direction.

    1. Maureen Murdock

      Thank you for your thoughtful point, Kim. Apparently, this is starting to take hold in other areas. In one town in Massachusetts, the police are treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than as a criminal issue and helping addicts get into recovery.

  3. Heather Murdock

    I hope solitary confinement is reduced even more – I think it’s horrible that they are still saying inmates can be kept there for up to 10 consecutive years – I can’t even imagine how awful that must be. I really do feel like they treat prisoners as less than human and it has to stop – thanks for continuing to bring these matters to people’s attention.

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