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Monday, September 30, 2013
Several federal courts have held that isolating mentally ill prisoners in conditions where they are not appropriately treated is unconstitutional.
Though the Virginia Department of Corrections has recently won praise for reforming its solitary confinement practices, a glaring omission to those reforms is any program that could be effective in helping those who suffer from mental illness or who developed mental illnesses as a result of detention in solitary.
Warehousing Virginia’s prisoners with serious mental illnesses in isolation units without proper treatment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and we urgently need to address this.
The much-touted incentive-based step-down program in Virginia purportedly allows prisoners in solitary confinement or segregation at Red Onion State Prison and Wallens Ridge State Prison to earn their way out of isolation based on good behavior.
But a substantial number of prisoners in segregation suffer from mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities — often caused or exacerbated by their time in solitary — and, as a result, they cannot participate in the step-down program because they find it difficult to function and follow rules. In effect, due to the design of the step-down program, these prisoners have no chance of getting out of segregation.
On average, researchers estimate that at least 30 percent of prisoners held in segregation are mentally ill. Prolonged isolation is dangerous for anyone, but it is especially devastating for the mentally ill. And, given the effects that prolonged isolation has on human beings, prisoners without any symptoms of mental illness often develop them in segregation.
Imagine yourself in this life: Prisoners in segregation spend 23 hours per day, seven days a week, alone in a small cell. They eat alone and have very little, if any, interaction with others.
Prisoners are allowed one hour of recreation, usually in a cage, and may shower three times per week. Often, segregated prisoners have nothing to read or to do to pass the time. There is often a complete sensory deprivation for prisoners in isolation. And while visitation is allowed for some prisoners, the remote geographic location of these prisons in Southwest Virginia makes the trip for families nearly impossible. Most of the families live in Richmond and the eastern part of Virginia and cannot drive eight or more hours each way.
Already isolated, mentally ill prisoners are likely to develop more disorders and harm themselves. An amicus brief submitted by nationally recognized mental health experts in the U.S. Supreme Court case Wilkinson v. Austin, noted that “no study of the effects of solitary or supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects.”
Effects include hallucinations, rage, irrational anger, lack of impulse control, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, confusing thought processes, and self-mutilation. The rate of suicide and incidents of self-harm are much higher for prisoners in solitary confinement. It is not unusual for these prisoners to engage in horrible acts, such as swallowing razors, repeatedly smashing their heads against walls or killing themselves.
As one California prison psychiatrist put it, “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane. . . . Most people in isolation will fall apart.”
A growing concern in the advocacy community is that there is no mention of targeted mental health programming and treatment to address the clinical needs of this segment of the segregation population. Without evidence-based treatment, including meaningful individual and group therapy, mentally ill prisoners who return to the outside world are more likely to endanger themselves and our communities, and to be reincarcerated at even higher costs to taxpayers.
The Virginia Department of Corrections is not addressing this growing and frightening problem at Red Onion or Wallens Ridge. It is critical that the department, in addition to the step-down program, take decisive steps very quickly to provide effective treatment for mentally ill prisoners in segregation.
Mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement are the forgotten among the forgotten. Much more should be done to change that.
Amezquita authored this commentary along with Alex R. Gulotta of the Legal Aid Justice Center and Victoria W. Ni of Public Justice.
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