Penitentiary System Madness
Over half of New Mexico's mentally ill prisoners are kept in isolation, while nationally, 2,000 inmates have been in solitary for over six years.
New Mexico – October 11, 2018
In our articles, we have repeatedly raised the issue of the structure and modalities of the operation of America's vast prison system, including in relation to persons suffering from mental illness. And in this context, the American penitentiary system has huge room for improvement.
Over 4,000 U.S. prisoners forced into solitary confinement suffer from serious mental illness, a survey from Yale law researchers and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) shows.
Prisoners are confined to small spaces without human contact for 22 hours a day for sometimes 15 days or more, the Guardian reports, noting that such treatment only aggravates existing, serious mental conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
“They are basically being subjected to torture,” said Amy Fettig, the Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
Fettig continued on to say that prison treatment and diagnosis for mental health conditions are “notoriously bad.”
The civilian mental health care system is far from desirable, but the criminal justice system is a completely different entity. However, we cannot say that authorities do not understand the problem and are doing nothing to solve it. Two new reports by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School find that prison directors around the country are aiming to limit the use of what they call “restrictive housing” and what is generally known as solitary confinement. Prison administrators once viewed isolating individuals as the solution to prison security. Now, they see it as a problem to be solved.
The 2018 reports provide the only comprehensive, current national data on the number of prisoners in restrictive housing and the length of time they spend there. As ASCA-Liman has done a series of these surveys, the impact of changing policies can be seen through the new numbers. The 2014 ASCA-Liman survey estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were in segregation. The 2016 Report pegged the number at about 68,000 people. As of the fall of 2017, about 61,000 prisoners were in isolation across the country.
How are some prison directors bringing the numbers down? Several systems no longer put prisoners in restrictive housing for minor rule violations, according to the report. Prison administrators have also increased oversight so that decisions to keep prisoners in isolation require high-level approval. And many states are implementing new standards from the American Correctional Association that prohibit putting juveniles into restrictive housing and limit its use for pregnant women and seriously mentally ill prisoners.
But the picture is not uniform. In more than two dozen states, the numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing decreased from 2016 to 2018, but despite encouraging reports, the Guardian reports that the rate of inmates placed in solitary confinement in institutions in at least 11 states continues to grow.
Two areas of special concern are the impact of mental illness and the length of time individuals spend in restrictive housing. States have a variety of definitions for serious mental illness. Using their own descriptions, jurisdictions counted more than 4,000 prisoners identified as seriously mentally ill and in restrictive housing. Not all correctional systems track how long prisoners remain in restrictive housing, according to the authors.
Of the 33 states that participated in the survey, one third reported that at least 10% of their male inmates suffered from some mental health illness. In New Mexico, over 60% of their mentally ill prisoners are kept in isolation, while nationally, nearly 2,000 inmates have been held in solitary for over six years.
“Part of the issue here is we have turned jails and prisons into mental health hospitals, and they aren’t mental health hospitals... They’re burying them alive in the prison system,” said Fettig, adding that the custom is a complete violation of the eighth constitutional amendment which protects citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment.”