The Psychic Toll of Being a Cop

The violent, trigger-happy policeman is a recurring actor in media accounts of mentally ill people meeting their doom on the streets, in their homes, and in jail. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, and on my blog, I myself have offered several accounts of unarmed victims of psychosis being gunned down by poorly trained, sometimes paranoid officers, and of the everlasting grief that descends upon the victims’ families.

The “killer cop” has become a stereotype to many in the mental illness “sub-nation.” All too often, the stereotype is true. Yet it is important that we recognize the unfairness of letting the stereotype stand for universal reality. The link below should be required clicking. It directs us to an essay written by Andy O’Hara, a retired 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. The topic is the high rate of suicide among policemen in this country, and the police culture of silence that discourages these stressed-out men and women from seeking help.

I have retrieved this essay from the website of the excellent Marshall Foundation, a leading source of journalism about the criminal justice system.

It’s Time We Talk
About Police Suicide

More cops die of suicide than die of
shootings and traffic accidents combined.

Deputy Derek Fish RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S deputy Derek Fish was just 28 and had only been on the job six years when he committed suicide. According to reports, Fish was coming off a routine shift. He returned his cruiser to the lot at his station and there, at the lot, he shot himself with his service revolver. Fish was, according to his colleagues, an outstanding officer who had recently been promoted. His was the third suicide in his department since 2001.

Read the full story here: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/03/it-s-time-we-talk-about-police-suicide 

Solitary Confinement: Cries for Help and Voices of Despair from Victims’ Mothers

This blog has lately been focusing on solitary confinement of jail and prison inmates as an intolerable practice in our criminal-justice system. Solitary confinement is inhumane, unproductive as a “corrections” technique, and psychologically destructive. It must be abolished.

My mission is to encourage others who feel this way to petition their congressmen and women to initiate repeal—and to identify and support the several organizations who are already working toward this.

 

I recognize the odds against my voice making a difference. It is all too easy for anyone who’s not personally connected to a victim of “the hole” to utter tsk-tsk noises at a safe removal from Ground Zero. Neither of my schizophrenic sons was ever arrested and threatened with this living entombment. My wife and I have never had to watch helplessly as either of our boys disappeared into one of the jails around the country where this barbaric practice continues unchecked; where the mostly-young and often mentally ill inmates undergo tortures of the damned, and their mothers1 The reader will note that I write, “mothers.” The almost complete absence of fathers from this discussion or from any conversation on their offsprings’ mental illness is a phenomenon that needs further examination. And Pete Early, I am NOT looking at you! agonize while pleading in vain for justice, or at least mercy.

 

Therefore:

 

In this blog, we are going to eliminate the tsk-tsking middleman—me—and hear from a sampling of mothers at Ground Zero whom I know through correspondence. The rawness of their outrage and grief has given them a truth-telling eloquence that far surpasses anything I’ve written or will write. They speak for thousands upon thousands of similarly violated families who cannot or will not seek to make their stories public.  

 

I have edited their emails to me only lightly, for compression and clarity. I have included the identities of two mothers, who have given me their permission. One is Jennifer Tirkot of Coral Gables, Florida. The other is Kimberlee Cooper West, of Fruitport, Michigan.

 

We will begin with some brief entries from a blog kept over several years on a private site by Jennifer Tirkot. Ms. Tirkot’s epic struggle with the state’s corrections system on behalf of her brain-disordered son John far exceed the damage he has endured during several stretches of solitary. I am planning to devote a future blog to her nearly unthinkable plight. Pete Early has also written about Ms. Tirkot: http://www.peteearley.com/2017/02/06/mother-repeatedly-tries-to-get-her-psychotic-son-help-instead-he-beats-her-and-is-arrested-twice/

 

Entry No. 1: I wrote my son’s story to have him taken out of solitary confinement and transferred to the state psychiatric hospital. This is his 2nd incarceration in 2 years for having a brain disorder. The last time he was incarcerated for hitting a police officer and EMT worker. They were Baker Acting him for his psychosis when he hit them. They transferred him to jail and locked him away in solitary confinement for 10 months. I had no choice but to share my story with the world. Pete Earley is publishing it. My son spent last Christmas and this Christmas in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder.  That’s what we do now.  We lock them in solitary confinement in jails/prisons and refuse to medicate them. 

Entry No. 2: I would like to sue the State of Florida for over wait times for competency restoration. My son suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety. He’s been in jail for over 7 months without medication.

Entry No. 3: He’s severely depressed and they are not treating his depression. Plus, his hands are all scared and his knuckles are red. I asked him what happened to his hands and he said he’s been hitting his cell wall to punish himself for hitting the patient. After 72 days in solitary confinement, he developed Bell’s Palsy, where the left side of his face became paralyzed. He refused medication for it because he said God was punishing him for hitting the patient. The left side of his face is now paralyzed. He’s been without medication to treat his schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety for over 7 months. I’ve been told by Elaine, head of DCF Forensic Hospitals, they can hold him incompetent without medication up to five years.

Entry No. 4 (dated July 21 of this year): Today is my son’s birthday…he’s in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder and the State of Florida didn’t take my “Do Not Release” letter seriously sent to Brevard County Circles of Care psychiatric care unit. I can never imagine crying anymore..but…I cry in my sleep, I cry when I wake up, and when I think I can’t cry anymore…I can’t stop crying…Happy Birthday to my loving son…

 

 

This mother, whose tragedy I mention in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, posted briefly, and searingly, on a private site:

October 22, 2014 Josh died alone in a jail cell. My 39-year-old son killed himself today. Josh hung himself in a solitary confinement cell in a prison south of St. Louis, Missouri. He died alone, afraid, and powerless. Josh needed help. Instead, he got punishment. Like all mothers, I had dreams for my children — dreams that didn’t include mental illness or prison.

 

I have written before of the nearly inhuman outrages, including solitary confinement, visited on Kimberlee Cooper West’s mentally ill adopted son Tyler, who still awaits trial on a minor charge after being incarcerated last February (!) Kimberlee has bravely encouraged me to tell Tyler’s story, with identification, and she has plunged into research regarding the lingering psychic damage of solitary confinement, which I will draw upon in a future blog.

 

Here is Kimberlee’s latest message to me:

 

Hello Ron. We as a society have to look at Solitary Confinement honestly. The studies have shown high recidivism rates. The psychological effects last a life time. Is that a healthy thing for society?  During solitary confinement, Ty called home dozens of times a day. He was screaming, crying, begging, for our help. He asked what is going on?  Please come pick him up. By this point he was further into his psychosis. He did not understand why he was there. He was suicidal, banging his head against the wall. No one intervened. He did not understand what was happening. There were times they forgot about him. Times he was not fed.

 

Four separate times our son was sent to solitary confinement. It was not because he was a bad kid. He has a serious mental disorder and is also autistic. The jail staff did not know what to do with him. He needed a hospital. They stopped all his antipsychotics cold turkey. This can lead to convulsions, And death. The medication insert warns “Do not stop medication abruptly.” Ty said “My insides and body are uncontrollably shaking.” He said “It feels like I have the flu. It feels like I’m dying. Mommy, I can’t breathe in here.” He has moderate COPD, from his reflux and dysphagia.

 

Why do they put people in solitary with breathing problems? Health problems are not considered. If they live or die, no one cares about inmates. The Jails are short on staff, so they forget about these people. They use their own formulary of a cheaper antipsychotic.  They waited many days before prescribing antipsychotics. CMH [Community Mental Health] decides when they are released. Social workers and case managers, are not doctors. CMH is not there weekends or holidays. This prolongs an inmate’s time in solitary. 

 

Muskegon County Jail has a doctor only on Fridays. They save money by not using doctors. Nurses take the place of doctors. So many inmates will confess to anything to end solitary confinement. Guilty or innocent, it does not matter. Research has shown that autistic people do not benefit from solitary confinement. Yet I know several who are in solitary. It can cause lifelong problems for the autistic. Our son has the maturity of a 12 year old. He has never hurt anyone. Now he has trauma to add to his list of disabilities. Jail staff do not consider these mitigating circumstances. There still are no laws on the books to protect our autistic and mentally ill kids. Ty has experienced delusions and has been in a fog.

 

Solitary accelerated our son’s mental illness. From there on we were on a downward spiral. . . Our independent forensic psychologist has described Ty as in acute turmoil, in a hypomanic state with major depression and diminished coping mechanisms. . . 

 

[The idea of solitary is] to “teach a lesson.” That I challenge. How does that work if someone has an adolescent brain, is mentally unstable or withdrawing from drugs? . . . If I locked my teenage son in his room and tased him I would go to jail. If it is not o.k. for me to do it, then why can they? . . .

 

We unconsciously assume that those thrown into solitary confinement are exclusively men. This letter, from the mother of an adopted daughter, attests otherwise:

 

[Our daughter] has been in solitary confinement several times in NYC and another urban area. One time, she was merely transferred and they automatically put her in solitary for 3 weeks. We got to visit her once for 1 hour. We drove 5 hours to get there. Most depressing visit I can recall. All metal, no touching, no hugging or human tenderness allowed.

When people do not “jump” as requested, they put you in solitary to “teach you a lesson,” as they have told her many times. You get 1 free hour per day, to shower, but that is it. No calls either. Just letters. That is the only form of communication. Another interesting fact is that many, many, many prisoners are adoptees. Many of them have mental health issues, but instead of dealing with that outside the system, thy are remanded to jail/prison. [Our daughter] spent over 2 years in federal prison and is now in a county jail, awaiting sentencing. She is hoping to get out in a month or so. But then she will serve 1.5-3 years on federal probation. If that gets violated, they frequently use it as a means to “throw you” back into prison.

The criminal “injustice” system is a travesty in its present state. I say, “tear it apart and start all over again,” building a system that treats those with medical and/or mental health issues as human beings first, and criminals last. Criminals are not born. They merely took a wrong turn. I do not believe they should be punished for life and/or altered immeasurably. Climbing out of the “hole” society has created for troubled souls is fraught with hazards, roadblocks, and generally impassable terrain.

 

I will be posting more parents’ testimonies regarding solitary confinement as time goes on. I welcome any repostings of this that readers care to make.

 

We Must Kill the Monster of Solitary Confinement

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.

Cellule du quartier d'isolement de la prison Jacques-Cartier, à travers le judas, Rennes, France

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.

End of disquisition.

If the public and its political leaders ignore this monster in the basement (or buffoonishly shrug it off  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/opinion/chris-christies-defense-of-solitary-confinement.html and https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/12/14/what-chris-christie-got-wrong-about-solitary-confinement#.HFGlWqlkR it isn’t because it’s a secret. Google “mental illness solitary confinement” and six hundred twenty-five thousand hits come up. They include thousands of studies, professional and academic, that overwhelmingly condemn the practice as a form of torture; as devastating to the brain; as falling below international standards of incarceration; unconstitutional; as an affront to decency.

A solitary confinement cell at the Cumberland County Jail, Portland (Joanna Walters)

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.”

You may read the entire article via this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/03/solitary-confinement-mentally-ill-prisoners-florida

The New York Times has returned time and again to attacking the abhorrent practice with probing news stories and editorial commentary. Here are links to Times pieces in recent months and years:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/opinion/justice-kennedy-on-solitary-confinement.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/cruel-isolation-of-prisoners.html

Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross

A sampling of other journalism on the topic barely scratches the surface. In July 26, 2006, Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio produced a valuable timeline: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5579901

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.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/solitary-confinement-brief-natural-history/

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.

Biggs writes:

“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”:

To “teach a lesson.” To punish someone for “talking back.” For “failing to speak English when able.” To separate fighting inmates—seldom minding who was the aggressor. For refusing to attend church services. For trying to translate for another detainee. (These examples are taken from the Introduction to “Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, The New Press, February 2016, https://longreads.com/2016/02/09/a-brief-history-of-solitary-confinement/)

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.

Angola Three event, Manchester Metropolitan University, November 2016 (05)
Albert Woodfox
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.