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Report: Mentally ill inmates are routinely abused by corrections officers

Human Rights Watch says mentally ill inmates shackled, shocked or pepper sprayed for nonthreatening behavior

Corrections officers use unnecessary and excessive violence against mentally ill inmates in the United States, often as punishment for nonthreatening behavior that is tied to prisoners’ illnesses, according to a report released Thursday (PDF) by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

After reviewing hundreds of class-action cases and investigations by the Department of Justice and interviewing hundreds of correctional institute staffers, psychiatrists and inmate advocates, HRW said it found that violence against prisoners with mental illnesses was often unwarranted and is “widespread and may be increasing” in U.S. prisons and jails.

“Jails and prisons can be dangerous, damaging and even deadly places for men and women with mental health problems,” Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, said in a statement. “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.”

Staff members at jails and prisons are allowed to use force when it is necessary to control dangerous or disruptive prisoners. But correctional staffers often apply force when mentally ill prisoners exhibit nonthreatening behavior related to illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the report found. That use of force often includes shackling inmates to chairs for days, shocking them with stun guns and using pepper spray on them, sometimes resulting in death, the report said.

If a mentally ill inmate urinates on the floor, for example, or bangs on a cell door or refuses to leave his or her cell, “the default response of staff may be the use of force,” HRW said.

Mentally ill inmates are more likely disobey orders and break rules more often than other prisoners, the report said, and they are often targeted with violence from staff as punishment.

A nationwide survey in 2006 from the U.S. Department of Justice (PDF) found that 58 percent of state prisoners who had mental health problems were charged with rule violations, the report said, compared with 43 percent of inmates without mental health issues.

HRW says prisoners with mental illnesses — who account for 15 to 20 percent of inmates in jails and prisons, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center (PDF) — aren’t receiving proper mental health treatment behind bars and are often improperly diagnosed. They are also disproportionately placed in isolation units, the report said, where they are held alone for 23 hours per day and their symptoms are exacerbated.

“Prisoners with such conditions often find it difficult to cope with the extraordinary stresses of incarceration and to comply with the prison regimen and staff orders,” the report said. “Untreated or undertreated because of inadequate mental health services, these prisoners may engage in conduct correctional staff consider annoying, bizarre, frightening, disruptive or dangerous.”

In some facilities, such as Rikers Island in New York, where systematic abuse of mentally ill inmates has been documented, “staff have used force to assert their power to punish prisoners who displeased, provoked or annoyed them, and they have done so with impunity,” the report said.

The examples offered in the HRW report are chilling.

Christopher Lopez, a 35-year-old inmate who had bipolar schizoaffective disorder, was found facedown and unresponsive on the floor of his cell in a Pueblo, Colorado, prison in 2013, HRW said. Rather than seek medical treatment, staffers allegedly handcuffed Lopez and shackled him into a restraint chair for hours and later left him shackled and wearing a spit mask on the floor of another cell. He suffered from multiple seizures and died a few hours later from hyponatremia, a treatable condition caused by abnormally low sodium levels in the blood.

A lawsuit filed by Lopez’s family against the Department of Corrections states that the condition might have been caused by his psychiatric medication, according to The Denver Post. A surveillance video of Lopez’s death shows that prison staffers stood around talking and laughing, ignoring the inmate as he struggled on the floor and died. The DOC later paid the Lopez family a $3 million settlement, according to local news reports.

In another case, Darren Rainey, 50, a schizophrenic inmate at Dade Correctional Institution in Florida, regularly smeared feces on himself and around his cell because of his mental health problems. The HRW report alleges that after one such incident in 2012, staffers took him to a shower that was broken in such a way that they were able to set the water temperature to scalding hot. Rainey couldn’t shut the water off or change the temperature. He was also unable to open the door unless staffers let him out.

When staff went back to retrieve him two hours later, Rainey was dead on the shower floor, with burns on more than 90 percent of his body. His skin was so burned that it had come loose from his body, a condition called slippage, according to The Miami Herald.

HRW recommends that jails and prisons end solitary confinement for inmates who have mental health problems and that the criminal justice system improve mental health services for prisoners. It also says that correctional officers should be properly trained to handle mentally ill prisoners and that community mental health programs should be improved to prevent so many mentally ill people from ending up behind bars.

“Custody staff are not trained in how to work with prisoners with mental disabilities, how to defuse volatile situations or how to talk prisoners into complying with orders,” Fellner said. “All too often, force is what staff members know and what they use. In badly run facilities, officers control inmates, including those with mental illness, through punitive violence.”

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