Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness10 Comments

"Solitary" by Brendan Murdock

“Solitary” by Brendan Murdock

29,000 inmates at California State prisons are on food strike. They are rejecting their meals in protest over solitary confinement conditions, poor food quality, a lack of warm clothing and cut-backs in education and rehabilitation programs. There has been a consistent reduction of programs and classes offered in prison because of  funding cuts despite the fact that the facilitators for these programs volunteer their services. I know, I’ve met some of them. Prisoners receive good time credits for attending classes and rehabilitation programs but there is no good time credit if there are no programs available.

The current meal strike is the largest in California history involving 3 times as many inmates as have participated in hunger strikes before. Solitary confinement, called Administrative Segregation, is a clear constitutional violation, an insidious exercise of cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates can be held in solitary confinement indefinitely; some have been there for decades. Many held in solitary are mentally ill. To punish those on strike, correctional officers have threatened mental health and medical evaluation (read: solitary), the denial of visitors and mail, and measures to interfere with or stall release and parole.

The hunger strike began as California is under a federal court order to remove 9600 low-level offenders from the prisons to ease crowding (present capacity: 137.5%). Governor Jerry Brown has refused to comply with the court order instead extending a contract with a private prison to continue housing more than 8200 inmates in other states. Instead of addressing the complex issues of caring for the sick and mentally ill, Brown is using the prisons to warehouse them in solitary. It seems that Brown is in the pocket of the powerful Correctional Officers lobby.

10 Comments on “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness”

  1. Having been in jail myself recently (for a protest), I can attest to the fact that there are few programs to keep inmates actively working toward their rehabilitation, whether that be GED or other learning opportunities. Fellow inmates spent 12 hours a day either sleeping or watching television when not engaged in basic life maintenance, cleaning the dorm and day room, or doing a jail job in the laundry. Like so many other social services that have been cut–ironically, “sequestered”–we have little funding to help those in need, including inmates simply in jail for alcohol and drug problems. Meanwhile, we’re building unnecessary freeways or supporting large corporations in a bail out. Bizarre.

  2. Medieval is an understatement. Gov. Brown knows better. Thanks for speaking up, Maureen, and inviting us to ponder the unjust and hideous treatment of the incarcerated. We should be taking to the streets in protest.
    Genie Hoyne

  3. Maureen, you are the person with personal experience as well as professional expertise who can credibly take on this horrific problem. Make more noise! The NY Times had a piece on the hunger strike today and the photo of the solitary confinement area is just shocking….looks like a dungeon. I am a lawyer and I had no idea that there are 10,000 (!!!) in solitary, and most have been there for decades! This has been carefully kept from public scrutiny. Finally, there is public attention to the issue.
    People who don’t know just shrug and say, “Who cares what happens to criminals?” You can speak to who many of these “criminals” are…..real people with families and most suffering from mental illness. The whole “drug war” and “three strikes” campaigns are about guaranteeing the private prisons, as well as prison guards, a minimum number of “filled beds” that they can over charge to the taxpayers. The system is rotten and incarceration is a money making industry.
    You have personal as well as professional chops to bring to it.
    The conditions in our state prisons and the medieval brutality of long-term solitary confinement are criminal, as the courts have said, and long overdue for activist public attention….
    How about having the real criminals from Wall Street “occupy” the cells…..oh yes, that’s different…..
    Great blog, Maureen

    1. Thanks for your reply, Peggy. You’re right that people don’t know the reasons inmates are put into solitary (some for sneaking candy bars back from the visitors’ room) and also don’t care that our sons and daughters are held in solitary indefinitely with no recourse. I’m glad that both the NY Times and the LA Times are addressing this issue in our state. I can’t understand how Jerry Brown, the former Buddhist, can continue to sanction the cruel and unusual treatment of inmates and fail to see the need for sincere rehabilitation.

  4. Maureen–this is all horrific–I knew things were bad but what you reported blows my mind. I appreciate you letting us know what horrible situations exist in the jails–and Governor Brown and his attitude– just awful.

  5. Criminal actions by State and Federal governments who enact FOR PROFIT private institutions, specificallly prisons, education and medical institutions. Privitization of public institutions is FACISM!

  6. Thank you Maureen for this thoughtful commentary. Holding positive thoughts for you and your family, especially Brendan. Joan Takayama-Ogawa

  7. Gov. Brown’s efforts to obstruct rather than comply with the Federal Court order mandating constitutionally compliant conditions in California’s prisons confounds all reason. How is society made safer by reducing programs that can, and do, change the lives of the incarcerated, while spending more taxpayers’ funds on sending California prisoners to out of state FOR PROFIT private institutions? Let’s hope the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation puts some effort into changing the causes of this action by the risoners rather than dealing only with the symptoms.

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