A Psychologist Warden in Chicago and a Federal Court Decision in California address Prisoners’ Human Rights
There are now 10 times as many mentally ill people in the nation’s 5000 jails and prisons as there are in state mental institutions. And these prisoners are more likely to be kept in solitary confinement and to be beaten by guards and other inmates. However, two new developments signal hope for the future.
The first is the selection of Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, as warden of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, one of the largest jails in the country. As many as 1/3 of its 8,000 inmates are mentally ill. Under her guidance, all inmates upon arrival are screened to see if they have a mental illness and if so, are given treatment. That information is then forwarded to judges before arraignment with the hope that the inmate might receive mental health care instead of a jail sentence. The jail also enrolls arriving inmates in health insurance so that they can receive basic case management upon their release.
Before becoming warden, Dr. Tapia ran the mental health transition center in the jail, which has become the centerpiece of her efforts to overhaul the entire jail. Five days a week, a group of inmates with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia receive cognitive behavioral therapy, job readiness skills and extra recreation instead of wasting away in solitary. None of the 43 former inmates who attended the program before being released have reoffended or been rearrested which attests to the success of Dr. Tapia’s forethought about after care. Dr. Tapia says that the whole time she worked as the jail psychologist, she made a point of getting to know the corrections officers, which made her transition to warden easier. This is a humane approach that should be adopted by Rikers in New York and the Twin Towers in Los Angeles.
The 2nd positive move to decrease the incarceration of the mentally ill in solitary confinement came last week in a landmark case in federal court in which California agreed to overhaul the state’s use of solitary confinement. Under the settlement, prisoners will no longer be sent to isolation indefinitely. Some inmates in California have been in isolation for 10, 20, even 30 years. Craig Haney, a psychologist who studied the effects of isolation on prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California used the term “social death” to describe the impact on prisoners’ psyches. Now, inmates will not be held in isolation for more than 10 consecutive years.
The inmates who brought the lawsuit said in a written statement released by their lawyers: “This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California and across the country. The prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are full human beings.”