Prison Inmates and Mental Illness
Prison Madness is a book that describes the intolerable life circumstances of prison inmates who suffer from mental illness.
In most state prisons in the United States, inmates live in overcrowded, often unsanitary conditions with no privacy. These conditions exacerbate symptoms of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. In Prison Madness, Terry Kupers points out that "crowding constitutes an intolerable trauma in itself. " He cites research studies that have linked crowding with increased violence in communities. In reception centers where prisoners are sent to await classification, mentally ill inmates are housed in close proximity to violent and predatory convicts. The chaotic, crowded environment of reception centers can result in the victimization of vulnerable inmates by violent convicts during the waiting period. While the process of assessment and classification of prisoners drags on due to inadequate staffing and overcrowding in reception centers, inmates with mental illness find that their safety is repeatedly compromised.
Supermax: How Solitary Confinement Harms Prison Inmates - What life is like for prison inmates in solitary confinement or supermax units.
Only a small number of severely disturbed inmates are sent to an inpatient hospital unit for treatment, and after their release, they receive drastically inadequate follow-up care. Like sane inmates who have trouble managing their anger, mentally ill inmates have precarious control over their behavior and are often punished with solitary confinement for getting into fights or creating disturbances.
Prison inmates are sent to solitary confinement units or "supermax" facilities for disciplinary purposes when their behavior in the general prison population has been assessed as dangerous, violent or disruptive.
While some inmates do act in ways that make them a serious threat to the safety of the general population, others are sent to solitary confinement for minor offenses such as taking too long in the shower.
Most states (about two-thirds) have segregation units or "supermax" facilities where prison inmates are confined in cells for 23 out of 24 hours each day. They are allowed one hour out of their cells for exercise in a small contained area.
Is Solitary Confinement in United States Prisons a Form of Torture? - Are supermax units a necessary form of discipline, or a crime against humanity?
Watch this video of inmates housed in solitary confinement in United States prisons and decide for yourself. Can you imagine living like this? Solitary confinement is isolation without privacy. I believe it is a death sentence for the precarious sanity of inmates with mental illness.
Solitary Confinement of Prison Inmates: What Do You Think? - Are supermax prisons and solitary confinement units necessary?
Share your own views about solitary confinement and supermax housing for prison inmates. Do you think this form of incarceration is a form of torture, as the video suggests? Is there a more humane alternative to solitary confinement, or is it the only possible way to keep other inmates, prison staff and the general public safe from dangerous inmates?
Is solitary confinement and supermax housing of prison inmates a form of torture?
Victimization of Prison Inmates with Mental Illness
Solitary confinement creates a dangerous cycle in some prison inmates.
Some inmates use aggressive or disruptive behavior to cope with the traumatic stress of being in prison. These inmates are repeatedly sent to segregation units as punishment.
Each time, they emerge with increasingly more severe aggressive and violent behaviors, including criminal victimization of vulnerable inmates.
They come out looking for a target for their intense rage, and often that target is a mentally ill inmate who is too disoriented, depressed, or distracted by hallucinations to be able to defend himself.
Mentally ill inmates start out with limited resources to defend themselves against physical and sexual violence. If the targeted inmate is taking antipsychotic medication, his capacity to keep himself safe may be compromised even further by delayed reactions to stimuli. This is a common side effect of antipsychotic drugs.
Inmates with bipolar mania or paranoid schizophrenia are the most likely to be sent to solitary confinement as punishment for defiant or bizarre behavior.
Others, particularly inmates with post-traumatic stress disorder, choose to stay in their cells all day in order to avoid being attacked out on the exercise yard.
And for inmates with major depressive disorder or catatonic schizophrenia, isolation and withdrawal is a characteristic symptom of their illness.
Racism in Prison
Racial prejudice is a mental and spiritual toxin for prison inmates of color.
Racism is another major dynamic underlying the violence, victimization, and madness in prisons. Kupers makes a direct connection between racism and mental health problems: "Blatant and unopposed racism has devastating effects on the mental health of prisoners," he says. "Quite a few prisoners of color are driven mad by the racism and their lack of recourse."
The racial discrimination that permeates the criminal justice system also infects correctional facilities, and Kupers points out that opportunities for inmates of color to correct racist injustices are extremely limited in the prison environment.
Inmates of color are frequently misidentified by prison staff as gang members and forced to "snitch" on other gang-involved inmates. In order to avoid the inevitably severe and violent consequences of naming real gang members, the informant will give the name of a socially isolated or mentally ill inmate who lacks the resources to launch a retaliatory attack.
As a result, mentally disturbed inmates with limited social skills are falsely identified as gang members and sent to segregation units.
This is best understood as a consequence of racist misconceptions among prison workers, and not as a reflection on the snitch's moral character. The snitch has only two alternatives to making false identifications: he can choose not to provide any names and be punished with solitary confinement, or he can supply names of real gang members and risk his life.
Not much of a choice.
When Prison is Not Justice - In United States prisons, there is no justice for inmates with mental illness.
Whether it is voluntary or enforced in solitary confinement, extreme isolation causes mentally ill inmates to become even more symptomatic and disoriented. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to victimization by aggressive and predatory inmates.
Punishment is not an appropriate or effective way to address symptoms of mental illness, and I think mentally ill individuals should never be imprisoned. When a person with mental illness must be confined for the sake of public safety, it should be in a hospital.
Do you think much about the lives of prison inmates? Most people don't. I can't blame them; the way the system is set up, prison life is sealed off from public consciousness.
Prison reform is important to me for a number of reasons, but the main thing I hope this lens does is get you to think about what life is like for prison inmates -- and not just those with mental illness.
Check out GrowWear's review of Prison Inmates and Mental Illness and leave a comment if you like. Thanks MiMi for the generous review!
- . Atul Gawande, The New Yorker.
- Solitary confinement in US prisons making thousands psychotic
- . Sherwood Ross, Straight Goods.