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Kiriakou writes: "There are times when I wonder if the various state and local departments (Justice, Corrections, Rehabilitation) that deal with prisoners should be renamed Department of Retribution. What they are doing has little to do with corrections or rehabilitation, particularly when it comes to inmates with mental illnesses."

'Treatment for mentally ill inmates remains awful by all standards.' (photo: Shutterstock)
'Treatment for mentally ill inmates remains awful by all standards.' (photo: Shutterstock)

The Department of Retribution: Torturing the Mentally Ill

By John Kiriakou, Reader Supported News

10 July 16


here are times when I wonder if the various state and local departments (Justice, Corrections, Rehabilitation) that deal with prisoners should be renamed Department of Retribution. What they are doing has little to do with corrections or rehabilitation, particularly when it comes to inmates with mental illnesses.

Although public perception of mental illness is changing, treatment for mentally ill inmates remains awful by all standards. While the federal government can set some treatment standards for mentally ill inmates in its prisons, states can do as much or as little as they want.

Money, of course, controls most decisions. Most “corrections” facilities do as little as possible for inmates’ mental health, including those with relatively minor and easily managed issues. It’s apparently cheaper to threaten or punish a prisoner than to figure out why he or she is acting in an irrational or otherwise unacceptable manner.

It’s difficult enough for any person managing a mental health illness or condition to recognize when he or she is losing control. Imagine trying to do this in the stressful environment of a jail or prison.

Solitary confinement has become a watchword for the worst prison abuse practices, from which even the general public recoils.

Prisons and jails frequently impose “extreme isolation” on mentally ill prisoners that ranges from 22 to 24 hours per day for days, weeks, or even months. In some well-documented cases, prisoners have been kept in isolation for years.

Fans of Orange is the New Black know confinement in “the SHU,” or “Special Housing Unit,” is often used to threaten prisoners, particularly stressed-out or mentally ill ones. In the real world, it is also used with little guidance and is remarkably ineffective.

A friend of mine knows someone currently in the Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover, Virginia. A letter she shared with me details this prisoner’s four stays in solitary confinement suicide watch over the course of 16 months. He has never threatened or attempted suicide while in jail. He has never been violent. He has not “acted out.” But he is on medication to treat depression and anxiety.

Pamunkey has had its share of suicides, so staff are understandably jumpy about prisoners who appear unduly sad. But being sad is part of being in prison, particularly after an unfavorable court ruling, as this prisoner had one day last year.

The prisoner spoke with daytime guards and the mental health official on duty and denied having suicidal feelings. However, a guard with whom he has had poor relations decided to act unilaterally later that night. First, she woke him up in the middle of the night to inquire about his status. He was probably less than convincing in his sleepy state. She later woke him a second time to put him in a suicide watch cell.

At Pamunkey, the suicide watch cell is part of the medical unit. But they aren’t even monitored all that closely. Jail staff say prisoners are watched through a cell camera. To test this, the prisoner sat in a corner of the cell out of camera view. It took more than an hour before someone came and told him to stay within camera view.

Suicide watch at Pamunkey has additional ramifications. Inmates who have been in this particular “service” are not permitted to shave, or to be shaved, for one month. The prisoner was put on further razor restrictions by this guard even after a superior had taken him off the restrictions.

That’s right: she went into the computer system to retract her superior’s orders. While this may not seem like a big deal, the prisoner had been suffering from neck rashes. Shaving provided some relief. Hair growth made the condition worse.

This same guard, by the way, has been named in a $2.85 million lawsuit for her role in breaking the limbs of a 72-year-old disabled man in Pamunkey’s custody. A diabetic who had gone for 12 hours without food during the intake process, he had taken some towels to keep himself warm. Apparently this was a serious violation that warranted three guards beating him senseless.

Regardless of how you view lawbreakers (the man was arrested for forging drug prescriptions), there is no excuse for breaking a prisoner’s legs or arms for any reason.

My friend spoke with a Pamunkey official about her friend’s placement in suicide watch. She pointed out that he had already been assessed as non-suicidal by staff that included a mental health specialist. She noted that suicidal people generally aren’t able to sleep, so why wake him up for the purpose of putting him on suicide watch? Finally, if he was deemed suicidal, why the delay in putting him on a suicide watch? The official told her that all guards are trained to assess prisoners for suicide and to place those they believe are at risk under watch.

This guard disagreed with and ignored several earlier mental health assessments for my friend’s friend. The guard is not a mental health specialist, just someone with a different opinion about a sleeping inmate’s mental health status at that moment. That single opinion is enough to overrule others. There is no recourse. And the delay in getting him to a suicide watch cell was due to a lack of available cells until, it seems, the middle of the night.

I don’t know about you, but if I were suicidal, Pamunkey’s suicide watch cell is the last place I’d want to be. Reading the prisoner’s description of the place, I can’t help but wonder if the purpose is to make someone more suicidal – if they ever were to begin with.

The cells are all-glass, like a fishbowl. Prisoners are exposed to artificial light at all times, 24 hours a day, wrecking what little chance they have to sleep. This certainly isn’t good for mental or physical health.

There is no working intercom or notification button that prisoners can use to alert staff if they get in a crisis, such as choking on food.

Sleep, when they can get it, is on a cold cement floor on the thinnest mattresses the jail has; they’re more mats than mattresses. Blankets are deemed dangerous, so inmates can’t cover themselves. The jail itself is normally quite cold; even in the summer months, prisoners bundle up.

During his four stays in the Fishbowl, the prisoner never once saw a psychiatrist, even after he requested to see someone to ask if his medication could be adjusted to handle the additional stress of being in suicide watch.

Prisoners have literally nothing to do in the Fishbowl. They are not permitted to have reading material, not even a Bible. “Perhaps jail staff believe we will kill ourselves through paper cuts,” the prisoner wrote to my friend.

During one particularly horrifying stay, the prisoner was unable to get gauze to stem ongoing bleeding from a surgical site. In his regular unit, he had been able to change and wash his clothes several times a day whenever he ran out of gauze. He had no additional clothing in suicide watch. So he sat, for two days, in blood-soaked clothing. (A second operation has since repaired the damage from the first one.)

Much has been made about private jails and their cost-cutting practices. Indeed, this has become a major theme in Orange is the New Black.

Pamunkey is run by something called the Pamunkey Regional Jail Authority. It’s as cost-obsessed as any private jail. Its 2015 Annual Report brags about how it returned a quarter-million dollars to local governments by not filling eight empty guard slots and ended its fiscal year with a surplus exceeding a half-million dollars. I’d bet money that somebody got a handsome bonus for those “savings.”

Indeed, the jail’s superintendent, Col. James C. Willett, thanked the board for its “leadership and support.” Their names were not published and I was unable to identify who sits on this board.

Unfortunately, this reduction in staff translates into periodic lockdowns when there aren’t enough staff onsite. The prison library closes altogether when its single librarian is away. Earlier this year, the post was vacant so there were no library hours at all for a few weeks.

Pamunkey’s latest “improvement” is to enclose its recreation yard. When asked about where prisoners could get fresh air and sunshine, Major Mark Cleveau, the jail’s security director, told our prisoner to “look out the window.”

I hate to sound like a broken record, but the behavior of so many prison guards and prison administrators in this country is reprehensible. To make matters worse, most prisoners can do nothing to change the status quo. There certainly has been no legislative help in recent decades, and, at least in the federal system, the courts won’t even hear a prisoner’s case until he has gone through a year-long “administrative review” process. In the meantime, federal prisoners are just transferred, and they have to begin the review process from scratch.

But conditions in U.S. state prisons and jails are worse. They are certainly not up to international standards. Indeed, the United Nations already has called the U.S. practice of solitary confinement a form of torture. Unless the courts decide to become “activist” in these cases, don’t expect to see any improvements in conditions or in respect for human rights anytime soon.

John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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