I wrote my fingers to the bone on the U.S. criminal justice abyss in my book and after it was published. Nothing changed, and it sickened and sickens me. Congratulations on this book, Christine Montross. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Gail Freedman.
When Christine Montross approached the end of her residency program in psychiatry, she met with a mentor for help evaluating two attractive job opportunities. Ignoring both options, her adviser raised the possibility of a third: “What about the prisons?” Montross balked at this unsolicited, unwanted suggestion. She deemed it an imprudent, even absurd use of her training, given the nation’s dearth of psychiatrists and broad demand for mental-health services. “Why would I want to work in the prisons?” Montross wondered. “Why devote my time and attention to people who had committed crimes when there were so many innocent people who needed care?”
I have written about the state-enforced incarceration, torture (via solitary confinement), and medical and inhumane neglect of young Tyler West of Fruitport, Michigan, since I began this blog nearly two years ago.
I have included mention of this mentally ill, ridiculously over-prosecuted victim’s plight in nearly every talk I have given. I’ve contacted journalists, advocates, and elected federal and state officials in and around Michigan. (Senator from the neighboring state of Minnesota, sometime mental health reform advocate, and perhaps presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar, I am looking at you. https://twitter.com/amyklobuchar/status/705052728171634688
No one answers. Silence prevails among people in a position to rescue Tyler and elevate him to a national symbol of our debased mental healthcare systems: a silence as absolute as that which surrounds Tyler when he is repeatedly thrown into solitary confinement for reasons undisclosed to his parents.
No one. No one. No one, on the evidence, cares about crazy people.
It causes me lacerating psychic pain to think about Tyler West and his inexplicable Bedlam-like imprisonment. (For details, see my other blogs about Tyler on this site.) My helplessness, and his family’s helplessness, in seeking justice for him exhaust and infuriate me no end. I no longer write about him as much as I used to, as much as I should.
The one person in this world who sustains any shred of hope within me, and who inspires me to speak about about Tyler yet again, is his courageous mother, Kimberlee Cooper-West. Kimberlee is a religious and civic-minded woman; and although struggling with her own grief, she has never given up on her violated adopted son. I have quoted many times from her impassioned writing. And today, reading through the Facebook file of my colleague in advocacy Dee Dee Moon Ranahan, I came upon her latest cry from the heart. It follows below. Ms. Stabenow? Ms. Klobuchar? Detroit Free Press? National NAMI? In this season of love and charity and reverence and soul-reclamation, to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “For God’s sake . . . do your duty!”
November 8 was our son Tyler’s 20th birthday. We were unable to say “Happy Birthday” as he was in lock down for five days. Days later, we drove a little over an hour to Richard Handlon Correctional Prison in Ionia, Michigan. (Tyler is number #113697.) We had cake with him. He made a cake from two honeybuns, smashed peanut M&M’s, and a melted Snickers bar on top. He’s inventive. We sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
He’s still our boy. Few mention him. Our heart breaks for what we’ve lost. This is Tyler’s third year away for his birthday. Next, he will miss Thanksgiving and Christmas. He hasn’t been given counseling, education, training, or the proper medications. He’s been beaten up four times since he was incarcerated.
Why couldn’t mental health professionals keep him in an inpatient psychiatric hospital? For the love of God there was no good reason to release our son from the hospital. His safety was compromised. No one was responsible. He was nearly shot at for trespassing. He was an inpatient five days prior to his arrest. He was delusional and hearing voices. What is wrong with this country? Why is there no long-term treatment?
This is a brain disease, ya all. Maybe we should start locking up every grandma and grandpa who is violent or disorderly from Alzheimer’s. Serious mental illness is a disease. It is prodromal to Alzheimer’s. Prisons are corporations. Their goal is money. They need prisoners. Caught up in the system — it’s a real thing.
We are receiving a criminal justice system education. Months are now years. One caseworker, Ms. Williams, calls many people names like dumb, retarded, idiots and pedophiles. Everyone in Ty’s facility is either mentally ill or autistic. She told Tyler, a 19-year-old kid who was only supposed to be in prison for two months, “You’re doing 15 years.” It leaves me to wonder how many have given up from her words.
Ty’s not even provided an inhaler for asthma and chronic lung disease. He has autism and a serious mental illness. When he was in school he was never suspended. He was a target for bullies which was our main concern. Incarceration never crossed our minds. On his birthday, I sent his appeal papers certified to a judge. Hopefully, he will give him an appellate lawyer.
Chris Sharikas at a young age started suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and ended up committing a violent crime, a crime where his sentencing guidelines called for a 7 to 11 year sentence. The state knew that Chris suffered from a mental illness and sent him to a hospital for a short period with the hope that he would become competent to stand trial. The State returned Chris to Arlington County for sentencing. The county jail determined that Chris did not need the medications prescribed for his mental condition and decided to use a different approach. Chris’ mental state deteriorated to the extent that he was no longer capable of showing remorse. This angered the Judge and he gave Chris maximum sentences.
At a Writ of Habeas Corpus hearing the Judge verbally confirmed the long sentences because he did not believe that Chris could recover from his illness. As a result Chris is serving multiple life sentences in a system of punishment because he is ill. Chris who never killed anyone has a longer sentence than the sniper who killed 22 people.
Since when in the United States do we sentence someone to prison simply because they are sick?
Please sign this petition to Governor Terry McAuliffe and ask him to pardon Chris so that he can receive care from a mental health care facility and not suffer a lifetime of punishment because he has a mental illness.
I have posted several blogs about the unconscionable jailhouse ordeal of Tyler West, the 18-year-old mental-illness sufferer who has been held in the Muskegon (MI) County Jail since February (!) while awaiting trial on a felony charge of breaking and entering. (He committed this offense early this year, walking into a neighbor’s house and falling asleep on a sofa while in a psychotic state.) Last week Tyler was beaten up by a violent inmate in a cell. It was the second beating he has endured.
Tyler has suffered unthinkably: deprivation of his medications for periods, stints in solitary confinement for no discernable reasons, and the one previous beating by an inmate. I cannot recall a case in which so much punitive state power and so much negligence for well being has ever been visited upon an ill and essentially peaceful young man. His adoptive parents, Dan and Kimberlee West, have held themselves together with remarkable fortitude as they have pleaded again and again for humane treatment and public recognition of Tyler’s torment.
The futility of finding help for Tyler–legal or through mass-media sources–rivals his ordeal itself in surreality. Together with many of you who read this blog, I have alerted media outlets in Michigan and an NPR program dedicated to investigative reporting. I am–we are–met with silence.
Kimberlee West herself updates the story in the message below, which I reprint with permission from the Circle of Comfort and Assistance Community website.
Please read it, and the letter she sent to the Muskegon County sheriff, and follow your conscience.
Wish with all of my being, I had nothing to post. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Our son Tyler was assaulted again, last week in jail. Tomorrow I will email another letter to Sheriff Poulin. Also I will bring forensic psych report into jail medical and to CMH. It is overwhelming. It is hard to carry on, when it has been one fire after another for the last 3 years. So hard to work like this. Ty has had struggles, but, this is a completely different matter. Admire all of you, who have been doing this year after year. This may be a ridiculous question because I already know the answer. How do ya all do it!? Hope one day we will have real choices! We told the sheriff several months prior, “Ty can’t protect himself”. Please do not place him with violent offenders. They are NEVER proactive! They mentioned placing him in security. What does that mean? Isolation!? The last week it has been hard to have a real conversation with Ty. He seems scared. He will barely talk to us. He fears he will be a snitch. Then someone else will get him. We found out during his video visit. We also noticed he had lost weight. Just wanted to reach through that computer and hug him, never letting go. Daddys and Mommys, if your kids and adult children are with you physically, hug them like there is no tomorrow. It is precious to have them near you! Even if you have rough days. Prayers ya all! Ty has a target on his back. Below is the letter to the sheriff. Hope I get it right?
Hello Sheriff Poulin,
We appreciate your quick response last time we emailed.
This is to inform you as of 10-31-2017, Tyler Daniel West,#131395, continues to be in your care at the Muskegon County Jail. We are Dan & Kimberlee West we are his parents, guardians and advocates. Should anything else happen to our son we hold you responsible for the damage/ or loss of life. We seek, for Ty to be moved to the appropriate pod. He was assaulted last week. Tyler is not violent. He has black eye and his neck, snapped back. He does not know how to fight. The last week he has has had a flat affect. Currently he does not feel safe? He is now a target in this unit. He is not street smart.
Ty was also, assaulted March 11, 2017. Ty has traumatic brain injury as he has sustained, several serious concussions. Tyler has Healthwest,(CMH) Dan Scanlan is his liason. Ty cannot protect himself, which means he is a danger to himself. Should he not be, in either a disabilities, medical/mental or handicap pod? His previous pod, he was safe. Tyler is autistic, and has a neurocognitive disability. He also has a Serious Mental Illness. He has intrusive auditory command hallucinations. Sensory integration disorder and ADHD. We will also send his recent Psychiatric report, from Dr. Harris. Tyler is only 18.
We thank you for your help and hope you have compassion to do the right thing for Ty.
Greene, whose impending Nov. 9 execution I condemned in my previous post, is likely suffering from one of serious mental illness’s most insidious and common “companion” affflictions, anosognosia. (The term is Greek for lack of insight, and is explained here: http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/key-issues/anosognosia.) I have seen anosognosia at work in both my schizophrenic sons, and can attest that its victims can make very convincing cases that they are “normal”–because that is what they believe. Greene appears to be another example.
The violent mentally ill comprise a small percentage of those afflicted. Yet they are among the most feared and despised of society’s scourges, and many people mistakenly equate schizophrenia with homicidal tendencies. http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php Very often, they have descended into a violent state because their brain disease has gone unmedicated, and thus worsened over time.
The Arkansas prison administrators who may soon exercise their power to kill Jack Greene appear to be equally clueless about the general nature of brain diseases such as Greene’s. They are physical genetic flaws that cannot be cured. Their effects can be modified by proper medication. Untreated, their victims lose all power to understand reality or control their actions.
If the November 9 execution goes forward, Jack Greene will die, but the real culprit–the disease that destroyed his reason–will live on, doing unspeakable human damage. It will continue to operate under the cloud of ignorance that still obscures justice for the mentally ill.
Please watch the video below to learn more about Mr. Greene and share his story with friends.
Jack Greene’s lawyers say he’s severely mentally ill. The Arkansas death row inmate says they’re lying.
As Greene approaches a Nov. 9 execution date, his lawyers are raising questions about who should determine his mental competency. Arkansas gives considerable weight to its prison director’s opinion in deciding whether a condemned inmate has the mental capacity to understand his execution; Greene’s lawyers want doctors to have a greater say.
“The system is really quite antiquated,” John Williams, an attorney for Greene, said in an interview. “(Prison director) Wendy Kelley is an arm of the state. She doesn’t have the expertise to make that determination.”
Greene was convicted for the 1991 killing Sidney Jethro Burnett after Burnett and his wife accused Greene of arson. At least one court this week will take up Greene’s case.
The inmate hasn’t always made it easy for his attorneys. While pleading for clemency, he told the Arkansas Parole Board this month that his lawyers are wrong to call him “delusional” and that courts have routinely found him competent. He also told the board, “I knew what I was doing to him,” when he tortured Burnett for an hour before shooting him. When a doctor testified that Greene has done headstands during examinations and even in courtrooms, Greene told the panel that he does yoga to remain “functional.”
Williams says the seemingly lucid moments mask severe mental illness.
“A lot of people who are mentally ill don’t think they’re mentally ill,” the lawyer said.
The case has drawn the attention of both the American Bar Association and a collection of 28 mental health professionals, who wrote to Gov. Asa Hutchinson saying it would be “morally and ethically wrong” to execute Greene.
“Mr. Greene’s illness manifests itself in extreme physical contortions, in self-mutilation, and in delusional beliefs he holds about a conspiracy against him between his attorneys and prison officials,” the mental health professionals wrote.
Greene stood throughout his Oct. 4 appearance before the Parole Board, fidgeting and fumbling through documents that, he says, promised him a transfer to his home state North Carolina, where authorities say he killed a brother days before killing Burnett. Bloodied, rolled up strands of tissue stuck out of both ears and his left nostril; his lawyers say that is a symptom of Greene’s mental illness.
“If I could go back to North Carolina and get medical treatment, that would be great, but if not, let’s come on with this execution,” he told the panel.
Williams says Greene believes he’s being executed because he uncovered a purported (and to Greene, successful) conspiracy among guards and lawyers to torture the inmate and dissolve his central nervous system and spinal column.
“He thinks that the Department of Correction cannot send him back to North Carolina because he knows too much about what has happened to him in prison,” Williams said. “They won’t send him back to North Carolina, so they have to execute him.”
Baloney, state lawyers say. North Carolina sent Greene to Arkansas for his murder trial on the condition that he would be returned if he received any sentence other than the death penalty. Greene knows a transfer is a lifeline, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Henry said.
The governor said Friday that he was still reviewing Greene’s file after Parole Board members recommended that he not spare the inmate’s life.
Greene’s execution would be Arkansas’ first since it put four men to death in an eight-day period in April.
This riveting essay, written three years ago by a member of Amnesty International, remains among the most compulsively readable indictments of our most barbaric form of punishment.
By Tessa Murphy London,
14 October 2014, 16:07 UTC
Tessa Murphy is a British campaigner at Amnesty International
The breathlessness was overwhelming. Standing in that small, dark cell, surrounded by nothing but three concrete walls, a dank toilet, a small sink, a thin mattress, a concrete slab and a perforated metal door that barely let any air in, the oppressive claustrophobia was hard to control.
This was not the first time I had set foot in a US prison, but it was the first time I had experienced what an isolation cell can do to you.
Everything about that room – the lack of windows, or natural light, or fresh air, the very thought of not being allowed any human interaction – seems to be designed to dehumanise. The basic penal concept of reform and social rehabilitation is excluded inside those three walls.
In solitary, punishment is king. The mere thought of spending more than a few minutes in that place was almost unbearable.
And then, a prisoner told me and my colleague that we were the first outsiders he had seen in 22 years.
I was surprised even to be allowed into California’s infamous Pelican Bay Prison. Correctional authorities across the US are unwilling to allow anyone to see what happens behind those thick concrete walls. And with evidence that has emerged – from Pennsylvania to Arizona, of voices crying for help – it’s no wonder. Across the US, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 people are held in long-term isolation
The authorities describe the system as “secure housing units”, “administrative segregation” and even “restricted housing.” But these euphemisms do not describe the human reality of these units.
The departments of corrections claim only prisoners who are a threat to guards or to other inmates are placed in isolation, after all other measures to control them fail. But as indicated by the tens of thousands detained, isolation cells are routinely used as punishment for minor offences such as disrespecting a prison guard or disobeying an order. In California, for example, suspected gang members can be placed in those dimly lit cells, just for having a calendar with Mayan symbols, or certain tattoos, or for being in the possession of books or other “source items” – or just for speaking to a “validated” inmate.
America’s prison isolation regime is not unusual, but it is cruel. Prisoners across the country are effectively entombed for nearly 22 hours a day in their cells, with no access to any education or rehabilitation programmes, with warehousing for the mentally ill in Arizona, with a man in Louisana who has been held in solitary since 1972. Prisoners must take their meals in the confines of those walls and are rarely given a chance to have any meaningful interaction with another human being. At all.
The only time prisoners in isolation are allowed to breathe outside air is when they are taken, alone, to a small outdoor yard, or cage, for “exercise”. Exercise is the word used by prison guards to describe the chance to walk a few steps back and forth. In California, following a hunger strike, prisoners were frequently given a chin-up bar and a hand ball, if they were allowed any recreation at all.
Some prisoners have literally lost their sanity due to the lack of human interaction – and estimated 30-50% of all inmates in solitary confinement are mentally ill or cognitively disabled, and 20% of those are severely mentally ill. Others have completely lost skin pigmentation because of the extreme lack of sunlight. And still others have taken their own lives after having little else to fill the time but stare at a wall for more than 20 hours every day.
But despite the plethora of horror stories emerging from the solitary cells across the US, the system remains unabated, and thousands of people remain entombed.
Thanks to pressure from local activists, lawmakers and organisations like Amnesty International, some states – like Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Virginia and Washington state – have introduced some reforms over the last few years.
However, at the federal level, the US government is currently planning to expand the use of solitary confinement: the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bought a correctional facility in Illinois two years ago, and this year’s BOP budget includes a proposal to reopen it as a federal supermax prison, potentially replicating the harsh isolation regime from its predecessor.
But how do these conditions of detention provide justice for anyone? This system prioritises retribution and warehousing of inmates over their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
There is widespread national and international agreement about the harm caused by incarceration in isolation. The United Nations’ top expert on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. He has repeatedly requested to visit super maximum security prison facilities, but the US state department has not allowed this.
Violent crime is a real issue in the US and elsewhere. But incarcerating people for years and even decades in solitary confinement should not be the way forward for any country purporting to respect human rights. A prison management tool that has been lambasted by human rights bodies and is increasingly challenged by penal experts and others is costly, ineffective and inhumane.
The US should focus its energy and resources on ensuring conditions of detention are compatible with its obligations under international law and standards – that the penitentiary system works for the social rehabilitation of prisoners, instead of perpetuating an abusive and cruel regime that is an affront to human rights.
In my previous blog, I called for the abolishment of solitary confinement—“the monster in our national basement”–throughout America’s jails and prisons. I left the question open as to how this might be accomplished.
I see one route, and one route only, toward this essential and long-overdue reform: enactment of a federal law that categorically bans solitary confinement in all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and detention centers. The law would establish strong felony charges (I would stop short of solitary confinement) for wardens and guards who violate it.
The congressional bill calling for total abolishment should be bipartisan, and should be buttressed by as many signatories as possible.
The law should have a name, of course. I propose the Dorothea Dix Humanity Toward Prisoners Act.
I will enlarge on this remedy and its possible champions later in this essay.
It is true that recent years have seen several initiatives to curtail solitary confinement, which currently encages 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners and inmates on a given day. They are well intentioned half-measures, and they are doomed to meaninglessness and failure. Half-measures will never be enough to eradicate this evil.
Nearly all juvenile offenders are sent to state prisons, or to local jails. Most of these are pre-trial detainees, trapped behind bars as they await trials that may be weeks, months, or years in the future.
A scandalous eighty-five percent of adolescents at the dreadful Rikers Island in New York—from a population that often approaches ten thousand daily—are pretrial detainees, most of whom simply cannot afford to pay bail for charges of petty crimes. Although this form of detention has been frequently challenged on constitutional grounds, it persists, with these young captives enjoying the same rights as convicted prisoners: the right to be separated indefinitely from their families; the right to be beaten and slashed by guards and fellow inmates; the right to kill themselves; and, of course, the right to solitary confinement and descent into madness (if they are not mad already, as twenty percent of the Rikers population typically is).
The single most notorious and crushing example of this, which I treat on pp. 150-151 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is the post-incarceration suicide of Kalief Browder, a promising young African-American man falsely accused of a crime and then packed off to Rikers for three years, two of which he spent in solitary, before being released. Browder was the subject of two piercing essays by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker, linked below:
Few jails in America, or in history, are as dangerous to their inmates as Rikers. When guards manage to intervene in a suicide attempt, for instance, they often follow up by beating the inmate until his blood and urine flow. (To give credit where it is due, Mayor DeBlasio announced in 2014 that he had a plan to close Rikers. The plan would take ten years to implement. That’s nice. Maybe then he can start helping out on Guantanamo.) Across America, and with varying degrees of official brutality, the young, the mentally ill, and the un-tried are largely at the mercy of inept, negligent, or actively repressive wardens and jailers. As I wrote in my previous blog: “[O]ur state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.”
Endemic in the United States, solitary confinement appears indifferent to a region’s general political values. It is the Monster Who Will Not Die—at least not until a stake is driven through its heart. Half-measures do not contemplate the stake. The federal government must.
California prides itself as being among the most progressive of states; yet it has ranked among the most promiscuous in the matter of bulldozing prisoners off for long stretches in “the Hole.” In the state’s charmingly named Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 prisoners had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, 78 of whom for more than 20. In all, the state held 9,870 prisoners in isolation in December 2012, when inmates, following the longest inmate hunger strike in California history to protest the practice, filed a prisoners’ lawsuit, Ashker vs. Governor. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/2015-09-01-Ashker-settlement-summary.pdf Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the suit was settled in the prisoners’ favor—pretty much—in 2015. Settlement terms resulted in the trimming down to 3,471 solitary prisoners as of August 2016, a 65 percent reduction. It greatly reduced the number of long-term solitary captives as well.
Prison officials had long justified solitary by pointing out the high percentage of gang members in their system. Gang-bangers’ influence was considered toxic, and dangerous, within the general prison population.
California’s enforced curtailing of “the Hole” is admirable, even pivotal, as far as it goes. The specter of gang members in the general population has not yet produced chaos: prison administrators have been obliged to seek other remedies, and they have worked. And for the hard-nosed among us, who believe that jailbirds deserve everything they get, here is a hard-nosed fact that may sway them: wiping out solitary confinement saves taxpayers’ money.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016-2017 state budget stipulates a reduction of $28 million as a direct result of the jail and prison housing conversions.
As the nonprofit national watchdog groupSolitary Watch has reported, citing the state’s Department of Corrections figures:
“The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11. . .it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]. . .In contrast, [spent] an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.”
All of this is admirable; a promising, if woefully belated, start to the fulfillment of Dorothea Dix’s noble dream.
And yet, it remains just that: a start. A good intention. A half-measure, given the history of what too often happens to good intentions. As 2015 ended, 5,378 men and 199 women in remained in various forms of solitary in California. That is 5,577 solitary inmates too many.
The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October. Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.
Once again: this proposal is enlightened as far as it goes, and in all likelihood reflects the senators’ understanding of the art of the possible, and its limitations. The legislation would free about ten thousand solitary inmates in federal prisons, roughly 6 percent of the total Yet it would not touch the oppression of the 70,000 people encaged in state prisons and county jails.
I believe that federal law must go much farther—all the way to the death of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that federal law must encompass not just federal prisons, but the very constitutionality of solitary confinement.
I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.
Potential Democratic sponsors in addition to the five mentioned above might begin with the young Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who leapt into the headlines and television soundbites last March with his riveting and eloquent rebuke to Rep. Paul Ryan, who had called the (doomed) Republican replacement bill to Obamacare “an act of mercy.” “This is not an act of mercy, Kennedy snapped, after rattling off several tenets of the scripture. “It’s an act of malice.” Kennedy’s family, of course, has a long history of involvement in health care and mental-health care issues, and the Kennedy name on such a bill would give it great symbolic power.
Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.
Any and all of these legislators would enhance the prospects of an eventual dispatching of the monster in our national basement.
I believe that such a law is especially urgent in these days of civic turmoil, street terror, collapse of faith in our institutions, widespread ignorance of or contempt for national traditions; even the irreducible dignity of our fellow human beings. Abolishing solitary confinement would do more than end an enduring national scourge. It would enshrine in history the crusade of the frail woman who concluded her timeless “Memorial” to the Massachusetts legislature back in 1843:
Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”
The full text of Dorothea Dix’s Memorial, with a brief explanatory, is here:
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
Solitary confinement is just another tool, we assure ourselves. Like we assure ourselves that—oh—the AK-47 is just another appliance. Ethically neutral. Dangerous but necessary. Good to have around when you need it. Properly stored, properly maintained, properly et cetera.
Here is the difference between solitary confinement and the AK-47: solitary is worse. Solitary is inherently evil. Solitary has no utilitarian value. No economic value. No social-protection value. No ethical or moral value. Solitary has one consequence and one consequence only: the slow and torturous disintegration of the human mind.
Solitary confinement must be abolished in this country. Not “limited.” Not “scaled back.” Not “reviewed” or “studied.” Abolished. Dragged out of the basement and exterminated. Prohibited by federal law as cruel and unusual punishment. Crueler, if not more “unusual,” than waterboarding, which is brutish and unproductive, but brief, and usually without lasting destruction to the psyche.
Solitary confinement must be wiped out because of its very purity: it is the purest most unadulterated method of infesting a human brain with loneliness, then despair, then desperation, and finally with head-banging madness that the world has ever seen. Solitary confinement is a demon that feeds on human souls.
As it feeds, here is some of the residue that it leaves behind, to fester: Paranoia. Stupor. Amnesia. Hallucinations; imaginary shapes and voices. Rage. Suicidal impulses. (Half of all jail and prison suicides are committed in solitary or soon after release, though solitary inmates make up only 5 percent of these populations.)
Let’s pause here for a disquisition on what we mean when we say “solitary confinement”: small concrete cell, maybe 7 by 10 feet. Small bed and toilet or hole in floor for urination and defecation. Steel door with slot for sliding food in. Darkness.
The hits include newspaper and magazine journalism as well; and, occasionally, television. The most dignified journals sometimes season their reportage with language that would make an old-time yellow journalism copy editor blush. Here is the August British journal, The Guardian:
“After her son tore off his penis with his bare hands in his cell, Gemma Pena thought Florida’s prison authorities might see his illness,” began one such story, in the August Manchester Guardian. “They’d see he needed a hospital, instead of solitary confinement. The article continued:
“‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s when the nightmare really started.’
“As her son Kristopher has moved through Florida’s prison system; so has Pena, relocating around the state to stay close to him. Now she lives in a tiny one-room apartment in a run-down Miami neighborhood. There’s a bed, a small table, two chairs, and a little window. She keeps the door locked. She lives in a solitary confinement of her own.”
In 2009, the respected advocacy journalist Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing in the progressive bi-monthly Mother Jones, offered a social history of American solitary confinement. Her consummately researched essay should be reviewed by anyone interested in the subject.
Biggs reminded us, for instance, of the fact that “solitary” is not some primitive artifact of 14th-century “Bedlam Asylum.” It is a fairly recent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, wrought by the most pacifistic religious order in the Western World. In 1790, the Society of Friends (the Quakers) completed work on the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia—the first edifice of the modern prison system. The Quakers conceived the newly evolving prison system as a vehicle not only for punishment but for spiritual rehabilitation. Hence “penitentiary,” denoting penitence. Solitary confinement was refined, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, as the highest distillation of the penitent act. It was not long, though, before evidence began to show that these isolated souls, instead of discovering peace through reverence, were going mad.
“Eastern State was a grand failure, and it was closed in 1971, 100 years after the concept of total isolation was abandoned. But what it revealed about the torturous effects of solitary may have made the practice attractive to those less concerned with rehabilitation and more interested in retribution. Solitary in the 20th century became a purely punitive tool used to break the spirits of inmates considered disruptive, violent, or disobedient. . .”
And that is more or less where things stand today.
In 2014, Pope Francis described such confinement as a form of torture. By the following year, more than 80,000 inmates, a high percentage of them already mad, were stored in solitary, more than in any other country. The numbers had been rising before that. From 1995 to 2000, the solitary confinement population in America increased by 40 percent. These figures exclude juveniles, who comprise the most inexcusable of all solitary confinement populations—in jails, mostly, awaiting hearings and trials. Adolescent brains, even “healthy” ones, are in a final stage of development that leaves them vulnerable to disruption, especially that caused by stress. (see NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, pp. 34-38). If the “right”—that is, the wrong—genetic inheritance is present, this is the age when schizophrenia develops.
Well, then, if solitary is so awful, why do inmates and prisoners keep getting stored away there?
The most rational defense of the practice that I’ve found is protection: the protection of one prisoner from others that want to do harm to him or her. Or to protect other prisoners from one dangerously violent individual.
But what’s that, you say? Dangerously violent individuals deserve what they get? Let’s keep in mind that up to half of some prison populations suffer severe mental illness; that these illnesses are not treated during solitary (nor, too often, out of solitary either), and that this kind of caging deepens and even creates psychosis. Who benefits when such a brain-damaged entity is placed in, and finally allowed out of, this confinement?
And if “protection” is the rationale, why not simply create an additional regulation-sized and lighted cell or two for that purpose?
The second-most rational defense concerns “discipline.” In fact, this is the only other remotely rational defense.
But “discipline”—and its justifications—are in the eye of the jailer. Which is very bad news for the disciplined. The range of “justifications” is nearly endless, exotic, and often the product of a clueless or sadistic jail official.
Sure, there are “policies.” Good ones, often. In January 2016, President Obama issued executive orders to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, with their total population of some 197,000. Yet our state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.
At these levels, little accountability exists to enforce the “policies” restricting solitary. In that breach, here is a tiny sampling of the reasons sending inmates into “the Box”:
And often, for reasons unexplained: the mother of a young, psychotic inmate in Florida, with whom I have been communicating since last autumn, claims that her son has done stretches in solitary for as long as nine months. What possible offense could merit confinement in “the hole” for nine months? Florida, by the way, boasts—if that is the word—more than 12,000 isolated inmates: one-eighth of the total in America.
Long stretches in the tight darkness such as this one seem impossible to believe—until you learn that that a man named Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther arrested for robbery in 1969, was released only in 2016, having served more than forty years in solitary. For those keeping score, this is a United States record.
I suspect a further reason, a reason that underlies the absurdist reasons listed above. I suspect it even though I find little empirical evidence to back me up. I suspect that wardens and guards throw prisoners into solitary out of fear. The same kind of fear that slave owners once harbored toward their slaves. And stemming from the same reasons.
Solitary confinement, in other words, is used to fight fear with fear.
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
In my next blog post, I will discuss what I believe is the only hope for exterminating the monster.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Ronald K. Lospennato, Advocacy Center 504-208-4679
NEW ORLEANS – Two civil rights organizations, the Advocacy Center and the ACLU of Louisiana, joined forces to file a lawsuit today on behalf of Dennis Bargher, who, while suffering from schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, was held at Tangipahoa Parish Jail (TPJ) for nearly two years without treatment. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
TPJ officials knew that Mr. Bargher was severely mentally ill, that a court had ordered his treatment with prescription medications, and that without treatment, Bargher would quickly descend into psychosis. Despite that, they refused to treat him, held him in solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time, and denied him food until he had lost nearly half his body weight. Bargher’s abuse at the hands of jail officials continued for almost two years until late 2011, when he was discovered – psychotic, emaciated and enfeebled – by civil rights groups and transferred to a different facility.
Miranda Tait, an attorney for the Advocacy Center said “prison conditions are very hard on inmates with mental illness. Conditions of overcrowding, violence, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activities, isolation from friends and family, and uncertainty about life after prison affect all inmates. These conditions are especially difficult for people with mental illness. The intentional withholding of medical treatment, with callous disregard for the inmate’s medical needs, is tantamount to torture”
According to Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, “Under the Constitution, prisons are obligated to provide inmates with adequate medical care, including mental health care. Officials cannot abuse or neglect inmates, deny prisoners essential treatment or allow offenders to physically and mentally waste away simply out of contempt or because they don’t understand the disease.”
With few psychiatric services available to the public, people with mental illness are increasingly funneled into a criminal justice system that is ill-equipped to address their treatment needs. Hundreds of thousands of men and women in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. “It’s past time for us to provide adequate care for those with illnesses,” continued Esman. “Dennis Barger was wrongly denied that care, and suffered greatly as a result.” Representing Dennis Bargher are Miranda Tait and Ronald Lospennato of the Advocacy Center, ACLU of Louisiana Senior Staff Attorney Justin Harrison, and ACLU Cooperating Attorney Ron Wilson.
A hallucinating inmate caught spitting and urinating on the floor of his cell. A woman wildly smearing fecal matter on her cell walls. These were just two of 47 unstable disturbing accounts detailed in the class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and its former leader, Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff.”