Those of you who have been reading my blog know that our prisons have become the largest mental illness institutions in the United States. An estimated one in five prisoners in the US has a serious mental illness including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, and major depression. I thought I had read everything about the despicable treatment the mentally ill receive while incarcerated but then my friend Vicki sent me Human Rights Watch’s recent report entitled “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons.” The 127-page report made me sick to my stomach as I read about the level of inhumanity we are allowing to be visited upon the most vulnerable citizens in our society.
The report details situations in which correctional officers have flooded inmates with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun guns, strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds. Inmates have had their jaws, noses, and ribs broken, internal organs damaged, cuts and bruises requiring stitches, and second degree burns. In some cases force has led to their death. US program senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, Jamie Fellner, said, “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” Imagine for a moment how you would feel if you or your loved one was being beat up because you or he or she couldn’t understand and follow directions.
Staff respond with violence when prisoners engage in behavior that is symptomatic of their mental health problems even when it is minor and non-threatening such as using profane language, banging on a cell door, complaining about not receiving a meal or refusing to come out of a cell. Some prisoners with mental disorders find it hard to cope with the enormous stresses of incarceration and have a difficult time complying with prison regimen and staff orders. In one case, staff at a California prison sprayed a prisoner who claimed to be “the Creator” approximately 40 times with pepper spray and threw four pepper spray grenades into his cell after he refused to come out of his cell. You can do something to bring about change:
This bill suggests a comprehensive approach that requires all relevant systems (criminal justice, mental health, substance abuse, consumers and families and friends) to work together to design and implement strategies to reduce incarceration and improve treatment and rehabilitation.
For an in-depth look at incarceration in the U.S. please take a careful look at the following InfoGraphic.