When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina’s Prisons

This was published on The Atlantic website, written by Andrew Cohen for The Atlantic on Jan. 10th, 2014:

A judge’s order in an inmate abuse case highlights the role played, or not played, by the state’s political and legal infrastructure.

In two months, America will observe the 50th anniversary of one of its most dubious moments. On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally murdered in Queens, New York. What made her case infamouslegendary, even—was that nobody responded to her cries for help. “Please help me, please help me!” she cried, over and over, and at least 38 people in her neighborhood who heard those cries did nothing to help her. They did not call the police. They did not come to comfort her. They did not, they later said, want to get involved. “When good people do nothing” is a timeless moral question, indeed.

One could say the same thing about the citizens of the state of South Carolina, who stand condemned today by one of their own. On Wednesday, in one of the most wrenching opinions you will ever read, a state judge in Columbia ruled that South Carolina prison officials were culpable of pervasive, systemic, unremitting violations of the state’s constitution by abusing and neglecting mentally ill inmates. The judge, Michael Baxley, a decorated former legislator, called it the “most troubling” case he ever had seen and I cannot disagree. Read the ruling. It’s heartbreaking.

Read the rest of this story here.

Jerry Brown Should (Still) Be Ashamed of California’s Prisons

This comes from The Atlantic, written by Andrew Cohen, April 8th 2013:

60 years ago, Pat Brown fought the mistreatment of the mentally ill. Today, his son, the governor of California, defends such mistreatment.

On January 8th, California Governor Jerry Brown ceremoniously declared an end to what he called the “prison emergency” in his state caused by epic overcrowding, chronic under-staffing, and the systemic mistreatment of inmates. “I mean, we’ve gone from serious constitutional problems to one of the finest prison systems in the United States,” he said, pitching a success story with which no federal court in the past two decades has ever agreed.

Not only was the prison system now the envy of the nation, the governor proclaimed, but the health care given to California inmates was so good that it was worthy of awe by ordinary citizens unencumbered by the bonds of custody. “Most of the people in prison get far better care for mental health problems or their physical well-being inside the prison than they’ll get once they’re released on the streets,” he said. And then Pat Brown’s son said this:

We’ve spent billions of dollars. We’ve hired hundreds, if not thousands, of professionals to make sure that we have excellent health care and excellent mental health care. And because of that, it is now time to return the control of our prison system to California. We have the constitutional obligation. We have the expertise and we’re ready to do it. There’s no question that there were big problems in California prisons — overcrowding, lack of health care, lack of mental health care, lots of other problems. But after decades of work, the job is now complete.

But it was not up to the Governor to unilaterally declare his state in compliance with its legal obligations to the inmates. The state long ago lost that right by persistently depriving prisoners of basic medical care under conditions that virtually every single reviewing court has deemed to be “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. Not only were the governor’s remarks an insult to all those mistreated people, in and out of prison; they were also irrelevant as a matter of law. He still needed permission from the federal courts to reclaim state control over prisons — and, in January, he asked for it.

The Scheme
Sometime in the last few years, unwilling to pay the price of restoring basic constitutional rights to the inmates, frustrated state officials ginned up a new idea to wiggle out from under federal judicial oversight of their overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Instead of doing an honorable thing — complying in good faith with a a series of federal court orders requiring them to provide adequate medical treatment to thousands of mentally ill prisoners — state officials chose to do a dishonorable thing. They chose to cheat.

Instead of hiring enough psychiatrists and staff to help treat the inmates, or moving more quickly to provide inpatient care for the ill men and women, or following the recommendations of a court-appointed expert who urged them to alter their suicide prevention policies, California officials decided instead to interrogate mentally ill inmates without giving notice to, or getting consent from, the prisoners’ attorneys. State officials then used those interviews to argue in their January motion that California had complied with its legal duties to the inmates.

But such ex parte contact between officials and inmates violates California’s attorney ethics rules. (Imagine how a judge or jury would react to the use of a mentally ill person’s statements against that person in court.) Worse, at the same time that officials were unlawfully questioning these prisoners, they were denying requests for information about prison practices and policies made by the inmates’ attorneys. On Friday, a federal judge in Sacramento put an end to the sleazy scheme. He denied Gov. Brown’s motion and once again ordered California to obey the letter and the spirit of the Eighth Amendment.

The Background
If you know something about the recent history of California’s continuing failure to humanely treat prisoners, then you will find frustrating U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Karlton’s ruling in the case styled Coleman v. Brown. Once more, a judge had clearly set forth what officials must do to meet their legal obligations to the inmates. Once more, a jurist caught California blatantly disregarding its legal duties while pretending otherwise to the world. Once more, state officials have embraced a culture that dehumanizes inmates by diminishing their mental illnesses.

And if for some reason you know nothing about what’s been happening in California’s prisons these past few decades — if, for example, you didn’t pay attention when United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy declared California’s prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded — Judge Karlton’s ruling offers a quick summary of why the costly case has lingered unresolved for decades. It’s not that the state can’t comply. It’s that the state still doesn’t want to comply. It’s no more complicated than that.

Read the ruling for yourself and then compare it with Gov. Brown’s January announcement. For example, the “far better care for mental health problems” the governor said that state inmates now are receiving? That care is evidently so good, the actual evidence shows, that the state’s inmate suicide rate, which fell to 15.7 per 100,000 prisoners in 2009, has risen again to 23.72 per 100,000 prisoners in 2012. The most obvious sign of poor mental health treatment — the pace of suicides — is getting worse, not better, inside Gov. Brown’s prisons.    

Read the rest here: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/04/jerry-brown-should-still-be-ashamed-of-californias-prisons/274747/

California suppressed consultant’s report on inmate suicides

This comes from the LA Times:

Feb. 28th, 2013
By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times

The report warned that California’s prison suicide-watch practices encouraged inmate deaths. Gov. Brown has said the state’s prison care crisis is over.

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown has pointed to reams of documents to make the case in court and on the stump that California’s prison crisis is over, and inmates are receiving good care.

But there is at least one document the administration wanted to hide.

New court filings reveal that the state suppressed a report from its own consultant warning that California’s prison suicide-watch practices encouraged inmate deaths.

Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on suicide prevention in prisons, told corrections officials in 2011 that the state’s system of holding suicidal inmates for days in dim, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor was compounding the risk that they would take their own lives.

His report described in detail inmates being divested of their clothes and possessions and robed in a “safety smock.” Hayes concluded that such conditions encouraged prisoners to declare they were no longer suicidal just to escape the holding cells. Many of them took their own lives soon after.

The state asked Hayes to create a short version of his report that omitted his damaging findings, to give to a court monitor and lawyers for prisoners, the court documents show. Hayes complied, but when inmate attorneys obtained a complete copy, the state asked a U.S. District Court to order it destroyed. The judge refused.

The report says the state’s handling of suicidal inmates is “seemingly punitive” and “anti-therapeutic.” Hayes noted that guards, not mental health workers, dictate many of the conditions of suicide watches, such as whether to allow daily showers. Hayes alleged prison workers sometimes falsified watch logs showing how frequently those inmates were checked.
Hayes found that in 25 of the cases he reviewed, seven prisoners had killed themselves within hours or days of being released from suicide watch. He found lapses in care — lengthy delays in checking on the prisoners, failure to attempt CPR — in 68% of the cases he studied. Hayes did give the state high marks for compiling exhaustive reports after an inmate’s death.

Contract records show that corrections officials recruited Hayes, a former consultant for inmate plaintiffs, to begin in 2010 a three-year project on suicide prevention, demonstrating the state’s resolve to improve inmate mental health care.

His first report was filed in August 2011. Hayes said in a deposition that none of the follow-up reports and consultations called for in his contract occurred.

“When your report landed, it was not roundly applauded and in fact was buried,” Robert Canning, a prison official overseeing Hayes’ work, wrote in a June 2012 email to the consultant. There were 32 prison suicides in California in 2012, above the national average.

Other new filings show that the staffing shortage at one prison psychiatric hospital is so critical the psychiatric staff has declared they have been working since Jan. 23 “under protest.”

The doctors in Salinas Valley State Prison’s psychiatric program, run by the Department of State Hospitals, say they routinely juggle caseloads of up to 60 patients a day, and in some instances have been assigned wards containing as many as 120 patients a day.

Read the rest here

AFSC Releases “Survivors Manual” By and For Prisoners in Solitary Confinemen

From: SolitaryWatch, July 31st, 2012
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The American Friends Service Committee has put out a new edition of the vital publication Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary — A Manual Written By and For People Living in Control Units. The volume is a collection of letters, stories, poetry, and practical advice on surviving solitary confinement in prisons. AFSC released the following announcement last week:

Solitary confinement, characterized by 23-hour a day lockout with minimal exercise and lack of human contact, affects an estimated 100,000 prisoners in federal and state prisons in almost every state. Thus the need for “Survivors Manual,” which was first issued in 1998, is even more vital.

In this powerful collection of voices from solitary, people currently or formerly held in isolation vividly describe their conditions and their daily lives. They also write about how they struggle to keep mind, body, and soul together in an environment that is designed to break them down. Many also analyze the political, economic, and social forces that shape their torturous situation. The collection also includes some stunning artwork and poetry.

A PDF of the manual is available online at the following link:

http://www.afsc.org/document/survivors-manual-surviving-solitary

Copies can also be purchased for $3 each at the following site:

http://www.quakerbooks.org/survivors_manual.php

Solitary Confinement in Virginia’s Prisons

From: SolitaryWatch
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Jan. 9th 2012

For anyone who missed it, this front page article in Sunday’s Washington Post gives excellent coverage to the widespread use of solitary confinement in Virginia’s state prisons. It begins with a glance at one of the nation’s most notorious supermax prisons, Red Onion, and then goes on to discuss efforts to limit the use of solitary in Virginia–which include both a lawsuit and a possible legislative initiative.

At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.

In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room…

As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state…

Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years…

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment…

A group of legislators…have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.

The story does a good job of explaining how solitary confinement became common practice in Virginia–and throughout the United States. Factors include the explosion in sentencing–and with it the boom in prison building–as well as the increasing criminalization of the mentally ill.

Although solitary confinement has long been a tool of prison discipline (and a staple of pop culture depictions of prison life), the use of solitary became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, many legal and medical experts have argued that inmates in isolation for long periods suffer from higher suicide rates, increased depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations…

Virginia opened Red Onion — deep in coal country and about 400 miles from Richmond — a dozen years ago as part of a major prison-building effort after the abolishment of parole and the lengthening of prison sentences. Like many other supermax prisons, Red Onion was designed to confine — but not necessarily rehabilitate — the most-dangerous criminals.

As of October, 505 of 745 inmates at Red Onion were in solitary, according to the state. When legislators toured Red Onion on Sept. 1, prison officials told them that 173 inmates in solitary there were considered mentally ill.

State officials said they do not keep statistics on the length of isolation stays, but they told Hope in a recent memo that Red Onion inmates have been isolated from two weeks to almost seven years, with an average stay of 2.7 years.

Unsurprisingly, Post reporter Anita Kumar encountered resistance and obfuscation when she sought information for the story: “Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.”

Read the full article here.

Justice Dept. announces investigation into 2 PA prisons

Post-Gazette.com”>Dec 1st 2011
From: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.com:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Justice Department announced today that it is starting civil investigations into two prisons in Western Pennsylvania.

The Justice department will investigate allegations that the North Side’s State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh failed to adequately protect prisoners from violence and sexual assault at the hands of guards and other prisoners, according to a release.

The department also “will look into whether SCI Pittsburgh officers systematically targeted prisoners for violence and other abuse based on the prisoners’ race, sexual orientation, gender identity or other status, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

The investigation into abuse at SCI-Pittsburgh began in late 2010 and has led to the suspension of eight corrections officers and the firings of four top managers.

The department will also investigate allegations that SCI-Cresson provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation.

Starting Friday, those with information about the prisons can reach the Justice Department via email at pennsylvaniaprisons.community@usdoj.gov.

Today’s announcement is separate from any potential federal criminal investigation involving these facilities.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11335/1193914-100.stm#ixzz1g8rejbU4

New Study: Solitary Confinement Overused in Colorado

From: SolitaryWatch:
November 18, 2011
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

A new report on solitary confinement in Colorado’s state prisons concluded that there are far too many inmates in round-the-clock lockdown. A series of relatively modest changes in its classification, review, and mental health treatment practices would “significantly reduce” the number of prisoners in administrative segregation, the report found. The report was funded by the National Institute of Corrections, and its authors, James Austin and Emmitt Sparkman, were involved in the dramatic reduction of solitary confinement in Mississippi’s prisons.

Alan Prendergast, who has spent more than a decade reporting on Colorado prisons for Denver’s weekly Westword, reviewed the report and provided the following summary:

A study by researchers at the National Institute of Corrections has found that Colorado’s approach to locking down its most unruly prisoners in 23-hour-a-day isolation is “basically sound” — but could be used a lot less. Instead, even as the state’s prison population is declining slightly, the use of “administrative segregation,” or solitary confinement, continues to increase.

The Colorado Department of Corrections houses close to 1,500 prisoners in “ad-seg,” about 7 percent of the entire state prison population. That’s significantly above the national average of 2 percent or less — and if you factor in the additional 670 prisoners who are in “punitive segregation” as a result of disciplinary actions, the CDOC figure is closer to 10 percent. And four out of ten of the prisoners in solitary have a diagnosed mental illness, roughly double the proportion in 1999. The state’s heavy reliance on ad-seg, including building a second supermax prison to house the overload, has put Colorado in the center of a growing national controversy over whether isolating prisoners creates more problems in the long run.

NIC researchers James Austin and Emmitt Sparkman were invited by DOC to prepare an external review of its ad-seg policies and classification system. Among other points, the pair found that the decision to send prisoners to lockdown has little review by headquarters; that “there is considerable confusion in the operational memorandums and regulations on how the administrative segregation units are to function;” that the average length of stay in isolation is about two years; and that 40 percent of the ad-seg prisoners are released directly to the community from lockdown, with no time spent in general population first.

Austin and Sparkman urge the DOC to require a mental health review before a prisoner is placed in ad-seg and to simplify the programs and phases inmates are required to complete before returning to a less restrictive prison. Even modest administrative changes would “significantly reduce” the state’s lockdown population, they claim, freeing up cells for other uses and saving the state money, since supermax prisons are more costly to operate than lower-security facilities.

For more on solitary confinement in Colorado, read our article Fortresses of Solitude.