New Treatment for Mentally Ill Inmates: Reduce Pepper Spray

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness17 Comments

Nelson Mandela's Prison Cell

Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Paige St. John writes that California has decided to use special solitary confinement units to house mentally ill inmates as part of an attempt to comply with federal court orders to improve their care. Instead of using pepper spray to calm them down, isolation is the new treatment for the mentally ill. State prisons director Michael Stainer describes this segregation from the rest of the population as an intent to “offer a robust mental health program.” Please!

State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard describes the new isolation units along with court ordered policies curtailing the use of pepper spray on mentally ill prisoners as “lasting cultural changes” in California’s sprawling prison system.

Please Note:  it is the view of these officials that curtailing the use of pepper spray and throwing mentally ill prisoners in solitary cells where they will spend 22 hours a day alone is considered “treatment for the mentally ill.”

I’m a mental health professional: treatment entails empathy, medication, therapy, psychosocial education, and an attempt to help an individual who suffers from a brain disorder to communicate with and integrate with his or her community. NOT to isolate him or her; that only makes mental illness worse.

By the way, this is considered progress. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown declared that such a humane approach was an attempt to “gold plate” the care of mentally ill prisoners.

Who’s more delusional here—the mentally ill prisoners or their keepers?

17 Comments on “New Treatment for Mentally Ill Inmates: Reduce Pepper Spray”

  1. Maureen, you do a good job of capturing the absurdity in this system, one that declares that mental health can be achieved for prisoners by depriving them of the essential aspects of a caring, human society. Orwellian, indeed.

  2. Maureen, you have succinctly pointed out the “Alice-in-Wonderland” nature of our criminal incarceration and mental illness treatment policies. Once upon a time Gov. Brown was considered “progressive”. Let’s hope he will become a forward thinker again after he is re-elected in November.

  3. Your illuminating article makes me remember the nervous and inexperienced King Pentheus in Euripedes’ The Bacchae where he attempts to incarcerate the unpredictable god Dionysos, who easily slips out of prisons and restraints. Mythically, could it be that the naive impulse that those who are to be incarcerated in isolation be figures of Dionysos who the powers fear and wish to corral in the name of improvement? A fine article Maureen.

  4. Maureen, thank you, once again, for bringing these important facts to light. Our culture doesn’t want to look at the prison system and certainly not mental illness. When you think about it, we have taught parents and teachers to isolate children who misbehave. I suppose a time out is better than corporal punishment, but as you mention, isolation is the very opposite of what anyone needs who has become dysregulated and “acts out”. Nervous system regulation and appropriate participation in any type of community (family, classroom or, even prison) requires face to face contact with others which engenders a sense of safety and connection. As you say, isolation makes it worse. Gov. Brown has obviously not been informed of the latest neuroscience research, among other things!

    1. Marti, thank you for pointing out the fact that Gov.Brown is not being informed about the latest neuroscience research; I think that’s a really important fact. If the people who are his support staff think that isolation is the way to treat mental illness, then we will continue to stigmatize brain disorders instead of making a concerted attempt to help people regulate their nervous systems. Governor Brown and prison officials need to be informed about available neuroscience research. It might even clear their own thinking.

      1. Maureen, I recommend someone meet directly with Gov. Brown’s staff and educate them. If you already have, then meet with them again. There was an art program at Chino Women’s Correctional Facilitie, where I substitute taught a clay class for one session. I was amazed by the students’ abilities, and the calming clay brought to them.

  5. Maureen – this form of treatment sound like something from the middle ages. It is totally outrageous. Thanks you for writing about it and bringing attention to this inhumane treatment and thank you for sending it to me.

  6. Thank you Maureen for being the voice of reason. You are a teacher of compassion and common sense. Those most injured, such as our mentally ill inmates, need leadership like yours to change leadership inside.

  7. Thank you for your voice in this matter. It is clear who is more delusional. And it’s not the mentally ill prisoners for sure!!
    This treatment is cruel and barbaric!

  8. This idea is disgusting. Would prison officials place people with cancer in isolation as a means to offer them a “robust” health treatment. It’s time for our country to wake up and treat mental illness with the compassion and understanding that any other disease is afforded. This makes me so sad.

      1. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental illness, education, and health care for all, most politicians in many states are confusing “enlightenment” with the true bottom line: money. It’s unnerving.

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