Report on Treatment of Mental Illness in Prisons by Human Rights Watch

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness8 Comments

Life in Lockup graphic from Human Rights Watch

Those of you who have been reading my blog know that our prisons have become the largest mental illness institutions in the United States. An estimated one in five prisoners in the US has a serious mental illness including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, and major depression. I thought I had read everything about the despicable treatment the mentally ill receive while incarcerated but then my friend Vicki sent me Human Rights Watch’s recent report entitled “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons.” The 127-page report made me sick to my stomach as I read about the level of inhumanity we are allowing to be visited upon the most vulnerable citizens in our society.

The report details situations in which correctional officers have flooded inmates with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun guns, strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds. Inmates have had their jaws, noses, and ribs broken, internal organs damaged, cuts and bruises requiring stitches, and second degree burns. In some cases force has led to their death. US program senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, Jamie Fellner, said, “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” Imagine for a moment how you would feel if you or your loved one was being beat up because you or he or she couldn’t understand and follow directions.

Staff respond with violence when prisoners engage in behavior that is symptomatic of their mental health problems even when it is minor and non-threatening such as using profane language, banging on a cell door, complaining about not receiving a meal or refusing to come out of a cell. Some prisoners with mental disorders find it hard to cope with the enormous stresses of incarceration and have a difficult time complying with prison regimen and staff orders. In one case, staff at a California prison sprayed a prisoner who claimed to be “the Creator” approximately 40 times with pepper spray and threw four pepper spray grenades into his cell after he refused to come out of his cell. You can do something to bring about change:

Contact Congress today and tell them to support the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act

This bill suggests a comprehensive approach that requires all relevant systems (criminal justice, mental health, substance abuse, consumers and families and friends) to work together to design and implement strategies to reduce incarceration and improve treatment and rehabilitation.

For an in-depth look at incarceration in the U.S. please take a careful look at the following InfoGraphic.


8 Comments on “Report on Treatment of Mental Illness in Prisons by Human Rights Watch”

  1. Hi Maureen- I continue to find all your prison info staggering–I cannot believe this exists at such a level in this day and age.I find it horrifying. Thanks you for sharing it all and hopefully step by little step things will gradually improve.

  2. Wow, one in five prisoners suffer from a mental illness! That’s a statistic worth remembering. And it’s not surprising in the sense that when our lives fall apart for whatever reason and we don’t have the funds or the family support or simply the state of mind to keep it together (like the rest of us who manage to get therapy or meds), one will likely end up in serious trouble.

    It’s also been shocking to learn about the high incidence of black men (and women, along with Latinos) who have been shot and killed before even making it to jail or prison, as well as those killed in jail, including a veteran, Sgt. James Brown, who was killed in custody, after croaking to his captors 20 times that he couldn’t breathe. He’d been brought in on DUI charges that seemed related to PTSD. This is how we treat our most vulnerable.

  3. hello sweet one….

    gripping, sad…and I know all very real for anyone walking in this horrific space….

    how are you doing????

    looking forward to seeing you both, cheryle

    “…we know there is no human foresight or wisdom that can prescribe direction to our life, except for small stretches of the way…Fate confronts [us] like an intricate labyrinth, all too rich in possibilities, and yet of these many possibilities only one is [our] own right way.” C G Jung

    Cheryle Van Scoy, RN, MN, MA Jungian Analyst Diplomate, C G Jung Institute Zurich Kusnacht, Switzerland 310.283.9043

    Cheryle Van Scoy Consulting 735 State Street Suite 414 Santa Barbara, California 93101

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