New York City Mayor: We Need to Address Mentally Ill Inmates in Jail

Reblogged from: The Epoch Times | November 20, 2014

Written By Annie Wu for The Epoch Times

NEW YORK—At a Thursday press briefing on the Department of Correction’s planned reforms of jail conditions at Rikers Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte expressed that their biggest challenge is how to provide for mentally ill inmates.

The mayor said the high proportion of inmates with a mental illness—at 40 percent of the total population at Rikers Island—was a reality that the Corrections Department failed to address, and was at times unwilling to. Half of all violent incidents reported at Rikers involved mentally ill inmates.

“There was no public acknowledgement that the problems on Rikers Island were first and foremost a mental health problem,” the mayor said. “We literally as a city, didn’t diagnose the problem until now.”


He added that a “culture change” was necessary to bring about effective reform in an agency where there existed “practices that were shockingly outmoded, things that went unsaid, things that went unaddressed.”

Break silence on brutal Florida prisons

This is from the Bradenton Herald, July 12, 2014:

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, suggested this week that, “If there is a problem,” within the Department of Corrections and the prisons and detention centers that it runs, “let’s fix it.”

However, there’s no “if” about it — there is a problem, a huge one.
Inmates are dying in Florida’s prisons, victims of torture and brutality. No one has been charged in these suspicious deaths, much less stood trial, despite the fact that one fatality has caught the public’s attention — the appalling case of Darren Rainey, who was scalded to death in 2012.
The FBI is investigating a prison riot in Suwannee. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also looking into an inmate’s mysterious death there. An inmate in a Panhandle facility died after being gassed repeatedly by corrections officers. And there are others.
Few state authorities, from Gov. Scott’s office to his inspector general to the head of Corrections, have leaped forth to avow that they will get to the bottom of whistleblowers’ and inmates’ credible allegations of institutional cruelty, tacitly tolerated by those in charge.
In fact, the silence has been so shocking that, thankfully, James McDonough, who headed Florida’s DOC under Gov. Jeb Bush, was compelled to go public, spurring long-overdue action:
• Tuesday, Mr. McDonough said in an e-mail: “I am revolted by what I am hearing, just as I am by what I am not hearing.” He added, “These cases did not end tragically last week; they ended in horrific and suspicious deaths some years ago. Where has the leadership been?”
Snoozing, apparently.
• Wednesday, the current chief of DOC, Mike Crews, finally roused, declared himself “outraged” — two years after Rainey’s death and two months after the Herald disclosed that he was strong-armed by prison guards into a shower stall and burned to death under searingly hot water.
• Thursday, a now-energized Mr. Crews suspended Jerry Cummings, the warden of the Florida City facility where Rainey died.
But none of this should be construed as leadership on Mr. Crews’ part. Backing and filling is more like it, unfortunately. Mr. Cummings is on paid administrative leave, but the two correctional officers who are said to have locked Rainey in the shower are still on the job.
Read the rest here, and also in the Huffington Post
lawsuit filed by four prison investigators claims Florida’s prison system is badly mismanaged and the results have been deadly.
The four filed a federal whistle-blower complaint on Monday alleging that state prisoners were beaten and tortured, that guards smuggled in drugs and other contraband in exchange for money and sexual favors, and that guards used gang enforcers to control the prison population. They claim those actions were either tacitly approved or covered up.
One of the most grisly examples of abuse mentioned in the suit, which was filed last week, is the death of 27-year-old inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo in September, 2010.
According to former inspector Aubrey] Land, Jordan-Aparo, serving an 18-month term for credit card fraud and drug charges, was placed in solitary confinement and gassed multiple times by guards after he had begged to be taken to the hospital for a worsening medical condition. Land, who said he stumbled on the death of Jordan-Aparo while investigating other “garden-variety” corruption and abuses at Franklin, said the prison’s medical staff, corrections officers and supervisors later conspired to fabricate reports and lie to law enforcement about the events leading to the inmate’s death.
Another case mentioned in the suit is that of 50-year-old mentally ill inmate, Darren Rainey.
In May, 2014, the suit says, Rainey was put inside a scalding hot shower at Dade Correctional as punishment for defecating on the floor of his cell.
Read more here. and act appropriately to stop these abuses and change the system!

Solitary Confinement in New Mexico

A 3 part series on solitary confinement in New Mexico, by KUNM:

Part 1 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Monday, April 28, 2014

In real life, human rights advocates say New Mexico needs to cut back on using solitary confinement as a punishment method—especially for people coping with mental illnesses. Prison officials agree that it should be used less often, though most take issue with the way it’s portrayed in prison dramas.
Read more here.

Part 2 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Monday, May 5, 2014

Jan Green isn’t sure of cell 135C’s exact dimensions at the Valencia County Detention Center. It was small.

“It was a shower stall, but I couldn’t use the shower,” she said. “It had the steel toilet and sink combination. It had a cement L-shaped bench and two drains. It had a steel door with a window that looked out into the walkway. “

She saw those objects every day all day during her months-long stints in solitary.

She slept on a mat on the floor. She remembers that it was cold in there, the lights were kept on around the clock, and she couldn’t get the water running properly. The out-of-use showerhead dripped. All the time.

“I remember being very ill,” she said. “I would pretend or whatever having a friend there for company.” read more by clicking here.

Part 3 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nataura Powdrell remembers one inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center who refused to take his meds. When the jail’s mental health staff tried to talk about it, he explained he didn’t want to become stable. Because then he’d be released from jail.

Then, he knew from experience, he would run through the 30-day supply of medication that the jail provides to exiting inmates. He would have a psychotic break. And he’d go find heroin so he could get comfortable with the voices in his head.

“It’s a catch 22 for him,” Powdrell, spokesperson for MDC, explained. “There needs to be somewhere between jail and the street that these people can get the appropriate help.”

Read more here.

Special "SCI Cresson Investigation" Edition of HRC Report

This was reblogged from: Pennsylvania Prison Report

Special “SCI Cresson Investigation” Edition

June 6, 2013
On Friday May 31, the United States Justice Department issued a report on its 18-month investigation of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC) prison in Cambria County, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, finding that the solitary confinement of people with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities is in violation of both the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The announcement came in a findings letter detailing the results of its investigation of SCI Cresson by attorneys with the Justice Department’s Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division, working in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Pennsylvania. The letter also notified PA governor Corbett that both agencies are expanding their investigation to include all 28 prisons under the control of the PADOC.

The investigation, launched in December 2011, set out to find whether SCI Cresson was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting mentally illl prisoners to the psychologically damaging conditions of long-term solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health care.

SCI Cresson, built in 1987, housed the PA Department of Corrections’ second-largest Secure Special Needs Unit (SSNU), a type of solitary confinement unit used for the isolation (and on paper, the treatment) of mentally ill prisoners. In January 2013, the PA DOC announced its intention to close the prison– three months after members of the investigation team met with PA DOC leadership and Cresson Superintendent Kenneth Cameron to discuss concerns about information received during the investigation. As of April 2013, the SSNU had been emptied and the prison held less than 400 prisoners (down from approx.1600).

Warehousing the Mentally Ill

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) letter, briefly summarized in a press release, catalogs a long list of human rights violations that will be familiar to readers of the Prison Report, centering on conditions of extreme isolation coupled with additional cruel and degrading punishments inflicted by staff, presided over by a prison administration that not only ignored wrongdoing by prison staff, but also actively prevented seriously mentally ill prisoners from receiving treatment.

The DOJ found that “Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for roughly 23 hours per day for months, even years, at a time. At Cresson, the prolonged isolation is all the harder for many prisoners with serious mental illness to endure because it involves harsh and punitive living conditions and, often, unnecessary staff- on-prisoner uses of force.” The report noted that placement of mentally ill prisoners in the prison’s solitary confinement units was intentional; not the consequence of a failure to identify those who are most vulnerable to such psychologically destructive conditions, but as a matter of systematic and deliberate practice.

The resulting harms have been catastrophic: “Cresson’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of isolation under the conditions described in this letter has resulted in harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide.” Corroborating this conclusion is the fact that although less than 10% of the prison’s total population is held in solitary confinement, during the previous year and-a-half, 2 of the 3 suicides and 14 of the 17 suicide attempts at SCI Cresson occurred in these units. Both of the suicides in the solitary units (which HRC reported on shortly after they happened) occurred after requests for mental health care were ignored by staff.

(Links to HRC reports on the 2 suicides in Cresson’s solitary units: “In Memory of Brandon Palakovic” and “Prison staff scramble to cover up circumstances of suicide at SCI Cresson“)

In one of the more graphic examples of self-harm described in the DOJ report, one prisoner was said to have “tore open his scrotum with his fingernail while housed at the RHU after experiencing isolation and a lack of adequate treatment there for three months. In the three days preceding this incident, BB cut his arm with a staple, smeared feces on himself while complaining of hearing voices, and tore off a fingernail. After the incident involving BB injuring his scrotum, he told staff that ‘mental health won’t listen to me so I’m pulling my nuts out.'”

A prisoner who has spent more than 7 of the last 12 years in solitary confinement in PADOC prisons told the DOJ that “isolation makes me want to rip my face off.” Emphasizing the seemingly endless duration of indefinite isolation, another prisoner stated that confinement in the SSNU “feel[s] like it will last the rest of [your] life.”

Torment and Punishment

Among the most disturbing of the investigation’s findings is the degree to which dehumanizing and harmful treatment of prisoners at Cresson was normalized and incorporated into the routine operations of the prison. Though the SSNU was supposedly intended for the treatment of seriously mentally ill prisoners, by policy and practice unit staff were encouraged to react to behavior symptomatic of severe mental illness with “aversive” measures intended to punish. Shouting, throwing feces, or banging one’s head into the wall were consistently responded to with violence by prison staff. The routine use of full-body restraints for extensive periods of time (avg 10.5 hours), using tasers on prisoners who were already fully restrained, forcing prisoners to sleep on cold concrete without a mattress, denial of food, exercise, visits and reading materials, were all regular tools of SCI Cresson staff.

Readers of the Prison Report, former prisoners, and family members will recognize these as regular tools of staff at most or all PA DOC prisons. Punishment of those with mental health needs results in a predictable cycle of dysfunction wherein psychological decompensation is exacerbated by violent repression. This recurring cycle is a phenomenon that is noted in virtually every human rights report, academic or clinical study, court case, or government report assessing conditions of solitary confinement across the country during the past 30 years. The DOJ report described the cycle of dysfunction as follows:

“At Cresson, prisoners with serious mental illness are often subjected to a toxic combination of conditions that include: prolonged isolation, harsh housing conditions, punitive behavior modification plans, and excessive uses of force. These conditions, intended to control these prisoners’ behavior, serve only to exacerbate their mental illness. Frequently, these conditions combine to do serious harm in the following way: a prisoner with serious mental illness is placed in isolation with inadequate mental health care, causing him to decompensate and behave negatively; staff respond by subjecting the prisoner to harsher living conditions, denying him stimuli, and/or using excessive force against him; the prisoner’s mental health continues to deteriorate, and he begins to engage in self-injurious conduct (e.g., banging his head hard and repeatedly against a concrete wall, ingesting objects, or hurling himself against the metal furnishings of his room) or attempts to kill himself; staff eventually respond by placing him in the MHU – a unit where a limited amount of treatment is provided; as soon as the prisoner begins to stabilize, he is returned to isolation, and the prisoner’s mental health again spirals downward.”

Noting that Cresson views “serious mental illness [as] intentional misbehavior that must be punished rather than treated,” the DOJ found that prison staff responded to “behaviors mostly or entirely derivative of mental illness” by deprivations such as “forcing the prisoner to sleep on cement slabs without a mattress; denying the prisoner access to warm food and instead giving him nothing but “food loaf” to eat; denying access to reading materials; denying the prisoner access to the caged, exercise pens; denying the prisoner access to showers; and restricting or eliminating the prisoner’s already limited ability to make phone calls or engage in non-contact visits with loved ones or friends.”

The culture of abuse on display at Cresson included tasering and pepper-spraying suicidal prisoners and leaving their arms and legs strapped to a concrete slab or bed for more than 10 hours at a time. In one incident, prison guards responded to an act of self-harm by placing the prisoner in four-point restraints, and tasering him with “a handheld electronic body immobilization device” when he requested that a mattress be placed on the metal bed prior to his being strapped down. He remained strapped down for nearly 15 hours. Another prisoner was placed in a restraint chair after slamming head first into his cell door, and was tasered seven times and pepper-sprayed in the face twice during the 24-hour period he was in the restraint chair.

In some instances prisoners were double-celled in the solitary confinement units with violent, predatory prisoners, including one case where a diagnosed schizophrenic poured boiling water on another prisoner, who was himself a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and with an IQ of 48. The boiling water caused blistering of the skin.

The DOJ concluded that Cresson lacks a “functioning residential treatment unit,” and that the SSNU does not “even resemble” a treatment unit. When prisoners in the isolation units are provided out-of-cell therapy, “the therapy is generally provided to the prisoner while he sits in a small cage roughly the size of a telephone booth.” According to the DOJ, one of the major causal factors of these conditions are staffing shortages that make it impossible for mental health professionals to provide necessary care.

Instead of any semblance of the residential treatment unit or programming, the DOJ found a prison where the sick torture the sick, and the endless depths of isolation are punctuated only by guard violence, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and death.

What’s next?

The impact that the release of the DOJ/US Attorney’s Office investigation findings will have remains unclear. Because conditions at Cresson appear to be indicative of systemic patterns throughout the PA DOC, the DOJ has now taken the unprecedented move of expanding the investigation to include all solitary confinement units of the state’s prison system. However, the office of the DOJ tasked with the investigation- the Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division- does not have the power to prosecute, and under the controlling statute- the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)- the PA DOC is allowed the opportunity to voluntarily remedy the unconstitutional conditions found by the DOJ. Failure to do so means that the DOJ will be permitted- but not required- to file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the Constitution.

At this time, it appears that all PA DOC staff complicit in the abuse, torture, and negligent treatment of severely mentally ill prisoners at SCI Cresson have not in any way been held accountable for their actions by either PA DOC or law enforcement agencies– in fact, the opposite has occurred: the prison’s chief psychologist James Harrington, who presided over the atrocities in Cresson’s “treatment units”, was recently promoted to the newly created position of Regional Chief Psychologist, in charge of overseeing the mental health services of seven PA DOC prisons.

***

We end this report with a quote from Renee Palakovic, whose son Brandon committed suicide while caged in SCI Cresson’s isolation units in July 2012 (read Renee’s full statement):

“..On Friday, May 31st (2013) when I read the news articles and eventually the Justice Department report later in the weekend, the pain that I have been fighting to control and manage every minute of every day came flooding back in a real and powerful way that I was not prepared for.

..What psychiatrist does this to a patient? He was ignored. Placed in solitary for extended periods of time and treated like an animal. Taunted by guards who found amusement in toying with his mind and his emotions and given the opportunity to harm himself.

..To read the Justice Department’s report and find that his requests for help were ignored, his visits with the psychiatrist skipped and his treatment reduced to ongoing and never-ending confinement in a small cement cell made my heart break all over again and quite frankly, made me mad as hell.

..My son was more than just a prisoner confined to a cell in a state correctional institution. I will keep telling myself this, because it is true. But until state correctional institutions believe it and operate based upon it, more and more sons and daughters will become victims of the callous and irresponsible treatment seen behind the walls of Cresson SCI.”

**************

If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, call us at 267-293-9169, email info@hrcoalition.org, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./

Pittsburgh area: Write On! – letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh,email hrcfedup@gmail.com or call 412-654-9070.

This is the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.

Keep up the fight!

Copyright © 2013 Human Rights Coalition – FedUp!, All rights reserved.

Petition for Appointment of Guardian outside the Nevada Dept of Corrections: plz help Mr Tragale

From: Nevada-Cure’s blog and added the petition text:

On August 20th 2012 Nevada-Cure sent this message out via email about retaliation against a prisoner held in NNCC (Carson City, NV). It appears Prisoner TRAGALE is being retaliated against for trying to help another prisoner, who is blind, mentally ill and unable to care for himself, have a guardian appointed to the prisoner to help him with his needs. 
Philip Tragale has asked the Courts for a Guardian and/or Lawyer to protect prisoner Daniel Stenner who is blind and mentally handicapped. Mr Tragale filed the text here underneath to the District Court in Nevada on June 6th 2012.

We have another case Mr Tragale filed which contains complaints about a few employees of NDOC who are alleged to be abusive towards prisoners. We will soon post that case here too.

Please write to your Legislator and Director Cox of NDOC to ask them to have an independent commission look into these alleged abuses, and have them stopped.

NV-CURE has not conducted an independent evaluation of Mr. Tragale’s claims.  However, such an investigation must be conducted by a person that is fair and impartial.  The truth and actual events must be made public and scrutinized by the Legislature. Please e-mail / write NDOC Director COX and members of the NV Legislature with your views and opinions on this matter.
Thank you.

Filed: 6-7-12
Case no. 12GRD0003D1B
Dept. no. 1
In the First Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada
In and for Carson City
*****
In Re: Daniel Stenner

Petition for Appointment of Guardian outside the Nevada Dept of Corrections

Comes now, Petitioner, Philip Tragale, and requests this Court to appoint a guardian for inmate Daniel Stenner, outside the NV Dept. of Corrections to protect inmate Stenner from the immoral, neglectful and abusive actions and practices of NDOC staff as will more fully appeare herein.

Petitioner, Philip Tragale, is an inmate, #62163, incarcerated at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City who has on three (3) occasions, for approx. one (1) week on each occasion witnessed the care of inmate Stenner. Petitioner now brings what he has witnessed before the Court for the Court to decide if action need be taken.

Daniel Stenner is blind and severely mentally handicapped to the point that he cannot do anything without assistance.

Petitioner believes Daniel Stenner is being abused for the following reasons:

1)      Daniel is never walked around or exercised in any way; he is removed from his cell to be fed and showered and done so in a special chair with wheels.

2)      Daniel is never taken outside for sun or fresh air.

3)      Daniel receives no therapy or rehabilitative training.

4)      Daniel is ignored, left in his cell naked and only paid attention to when he urinates (not in the toilet) or starts to scream, cry out or slap himself in the face and then he is told to lay down or he is offered food which is withheld for hours.

5)      Daniel is not given a radio or tv to keep him company or for mental stimulation nor does anyone spend time with Daniel just to try to engage him in conversation.

6)      Daniel’s meals are left to sit on the counter, in the open air, uncovered, for hours before it is fed to him cold, congealed, and dried out and only after hours of Daniel crying out and being told he’ll be fed soon over and over again.

7)      On one occasion Petitioner heard and saw Correctional Officer Cardella approach Daniel’s cell and in a low voice so no one could hear tell Daniel “You’re a F…ing B..ch.” Cardella then went to the doorjam and repeated his comment. Petitioner was in the next cell and when he witnessed this he began to scream at c/o Cardella to leave Daniel alone. Petitioner reported this to all present staff.

8)      It appears to Petitioner that c/o Cardella has some weird fascination/fixation with Daniel as Petitioner has witnessed c/o Cardella become entranced, staring at Daniel with a strange look on his face many times when he thinks no one is paying attention and all other free staff are busy. [p. 3]

9)      Petitioner has heard c/o Cardella talk about “pile driving” inmates and fears that if c/o Cardella ever gets a chance he will severely injure Daniel.

10)   It appears to Petitioner that Daniel no longer even understands that he is in prison.

Petitioner submits this petition in good faith and swears to its contents under penalty of perjury. Further, Petitioner would polygraph and/or testify to these matters in any investigation or Court proceeding.

WHEREFORE, petitioner prays this Court will appoint a guardian and/or attorney to look into these allegations and continue to look out for Daniel Stenner’s safety and wellbeing.

Dated this 10th Day of May, 2012.

Respectfully Submitted,

[signed] Philip Tragale

Philip Tragale #62163
NNCC
P.O. Box 7000
Carson City, NV 89702


URGENT: CALL GOVERNOR KASICH about upcoming execution of mentally ill man!

URGENT: CALL GOVERNOR KASICH

Ohio is getting ready to execute Abdul Awkal on June 6 for the 1992 murders of his estranged wife and her brother in Cleveland.

On Friday, May 18 the Parole Board issued an 8-1 recommendation against clemency. The minority report cited the long history of Abdul Awkal’s mental illness, hallucinations, grandiose delusions. The report even cited bizarre statements during the interview with the parole board during the clemency process. The prosecution and majority of parole board members are ignoring the obvious serious mental health illness of Mr. Awkal. Click here to read the report.

Please call Governor Kasich’s office at 614-466-3555 and urge him to commute the sentence of Mr. Awkal to life without parole. We Ohioans recognize we should not execute our citizens who suffer from debilitating mental illness.

Background on the case:
Abdul Awkal has a long history of severe mental illness prior to the murders and since his incarceration. When he was arrested and charged, he was found incompetent to stand trial. After treatment at a mental hospital and increased dosages of anti-psychotic medications, he was ruled fit for trial even though he continued to be treated at the hospital during his trial.
The following information from the clemency petition for Mr. Awkal demonstrates the nature of his mental illness:

  • Mr. Awkal was ruled incompetent to waive his appeals in 2007 by a federal court.
  • Mr. Awkal believes that he is conducting US foreign policy in the Middle East.
  • Mr. Awkal believes he is in communication with former president Bush regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Mr. Awkal believes he provides the CIA with important intelligence information. He believes he had direct communication with former CIA director George Tenant to help the CIA win the war in Afghanistan. He also believes he is partially responsible for the events which took place in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
  • Mr. Awkal believes that General David Patraeus adopted Awkal’s new war plan sent to President Obama.
  • Mr. Awkal believes he warned US officials of the September 11 attacks before they took place.
  • Mr. Awkal believes encoded messages from the CIA come to him via editions of USA Today.

He has done all of this diplomacy and classified work from his prison cell on death row.
No one disputes that Mr. Awakal suffers from a debilitating mental illness. His disorder has been diagnosed and is well known.

Please call Governor Kasich’s office at 614-466-3555 and urge him to commute the sentence of Mr. Awkal to life without parole. Ohioans recognize Mr. Awkal suffers from a debilitating mental illness and should not be executed.

Please let Governor Kasich know that Ohio should not be executing someone as profoundly mentally ill as Mr. Awkal. 

You can call 614-466-3555, e-mail his Chief of Staff at Beth.Hansen@governor.ohio.gov, or e-mail his Director of Constituent Services at Brad.Reynolds@governor.ohio.gov.

ps you can also ask to have the death sentenced communted and not ask for life without parole, being just a prolonged death sentence…

Why Are Prisoners Committing Suicide in Pennsylvania?

Received via The Real Cost of Prisons, forthcoming in The Nation:

Great work Bret Grote and HRC. http://hrcoalition.org/
Don’t forget to check out their excellent publication The Movement-http://hrcoalition.org/node/97

“The DOJ investigation has the potential to further expose the utter depravity…of the prison system,” says Bret Grote of the Human Rights Coalition. The use of punitive isolation at CSI Cresson, he says, fits “squarely within the norm for how solitary units are run throughout [Pennsylvania], where instances of cruelty and insanity are deliberately multiplied by government employees as a matter of policy.”

Why Are Prisoners Committing Suicide in Pennsylvania?
Matt Stroud
April 18, 2012 | This article appeared in the May 7, 2012 edition of The Nation.

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.

By the time John McClellan Jr. was found dead inside Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Cresson last May, he had long been categorized as “special needs” for his history of addiction and mental instability. Yet prisoners and staff say the 42-year-old inmate was not living in one of the facility’s treatment units but in the Restricted Housing Unit, or RHU—otherwise known as solitary confinement.

Two months earlier, McClellan had written a letter to his father, a Philadelphia police officer, saying that five correctional officers had assaulted him, then filed false charges against him. John McClellan Sr. had already contacted an attorney; threats and abuse from guards were allegedly so frequent his son kept a makeshift calendar on legal-sized notebook paper to keep track. A former SCI Cresson prisoner, Tim Everard, who says he spent time in a neighboring RHU cell, recalls seeing guards kicking the younger McClellan’s cell door, calling him names and goading him to kill himself. When Everard told the manager of the ward that McClellan seemed suicidal, Everard says she brushed him off, saying of the impulse to commit suicide, “If he’s going to act on it, he’s going to act on it.”

On December 1 the Justice Department announced an investigation into SCI Cresson as well as SCI Pittsburgh in response to allegations of prisoner abuse. Since then, another inmate, who reportedly asked repeatedly for and was denied mental health treatment, has committed suicide inside SCI Cresson. An investigation by The Nation uncovered details of the claims at the center of the probe, through interviews with current and former Department of Corrections (DOC) employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. At least three sources with knowledge of the mental health procedures at SCI Cresson have provided corroborating evidence to the Justice Department, claiming that they were threatened with physical harm or false charges by prison authorities if they raised concerns.

Filed under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, more than thirty similar investigations have been launched by the Justice Department since 1996. Most involve jails holding pretrial prisoners, and at least ten involve claims of insufficient mental healthcare. The process is generally diplomatic rather than prosecutorial; the DOJ publicly releases findings and suggests changes. Institutions usually agree to abide by the recommendations. The DOJ can sue those that don’t; in extreme cases this can lead to a court order forcing a prison to operate under the supervision of a Special Master (as in the case of California, where the state’s entire prison healthcare system was put into receivership).

The investigation into SCI Cresson could have important implications beyond Pennsylvania. In addition to determining whether it “provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness [and] failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm,” according to the DOJ’s official release, investigators will also consider the practice of subjecting mentally ill prisoners to “excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” with its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even if the particular abuse leveled at McClellan is found to be an aberration, holding mentally unstable prisoners in solitary confinement is a common practice in prisons and jails across the country. With major studies showing that prolonged isolation can aggravate—and even contribute to—mental illness and a small number of states moving to reduce their reliance on the practice, the DOJ investigation could be a significant step toward banning solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners.

* * *

SCI Cresson was a tuberculosis sanitarium from 1912 through 1956, then a mental institution until 1982, when it was shuttered and abandoned. It reopened as a state penitentiary five years later. Today it is a medium-security facility housing some 1,624 prisoners whose crimes range from murder to drunk driving. Fourteen percent are locked up for parole violations.

Located ninety miles east of Pittsburgh, the prison complex sits off an old highway just outside the small town of Cresson (population: 1,711), known for its coal yards, mineral springs and lumber. Dense forest surrounds everything, including the prison, whose old brick buildings might seem peaceful if they weren’t surrounded by razor wire and thirty-foot fences.

Historically, Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of the use of solitary confinement, and it has continued to experiment with new forms of isolation. In 2000 the Pennsylvania DOC introduced the Long Term Segregation Unit, or LTSU, to house its most dangerous and disobedient inmates. Based on a similar program introduced in 1989 at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, the LTSU held inmates in single cells, isolated for at least twenty-three hours a day bereft of any property, including reading material. The treatment was supposed to last for thirty-six months at the most, with officials vowing to send LTSU prisoners back to the general population when their behavior improved.

A 2004 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review quoted DOC sources citing the extreme unruliness of LTSU prisoners—“the worst of the worst,” “despicable inmate[s]” who “just seemed to be incorrigible”—and also quoted attorneys and advocates concerned about the effect on vulnerable inmates. “It raises the question of mentally ill [prisoners] in this unit whose conditions are made worse by long-term isolation,” one lawyer said.

As Pennsylvania implemented the LTSU program, mental health experts warned that such sustained isolation could cause significant mental problems. In a 2003 report in Crime and Delinquency, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote, “There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax–like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days…failed to result in negative psychological effects.”

Lawsuits filed by prisoners supported this. In 2000 inmates at SCI Pittsburgh sued the DOC, claiming that long-term isolation caused mental health issues to get worse and, in some cases, to arise out of nowhere. In a 2003 ruling in Rivera v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state Superior Court determined that it was “not clear…whether the mental and emotional conditions demonstrated in the LTSU contribute or cause the extreme behavioral issues that landed these inmates in the LTSU or whether those types of conditions are in part caused by long periods of solitary confinement in such a unit.” But an appellate court later decided that the LTSU’s failure to address mental health issues did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

Nevertheless, about five years after it was implemented, the LTSU program was replaced with a new program explicitly designed to treat mental illness in prisoners with behavioral problems. Dubbed the Secure Special Needs Unit or SSNU, it was unveiled at SCI Cresson. Officials denied requests for information about this change, but a source close to the transition said it looked as though the DOC “actually wanted to make a positive change and to bring some treatment for people with serious mental health issues.”

Testifying before Pennsylvania’s House Judiciary Committee in August 2010, DOC deputy secretary Michael Klopotoski drew a distinction between SSNUs and other specialized housing units—specifically, the RHU (where McClellan was found), the Special Management Unit (SMU) and the Special Needs Unit, for mentally ill prisoners without behavioral problems. Whereas RHUs were designed “to securely house an offender who receives disciplinary sanctions” and SMUs “to securely house an offender who exhibits behavior that is continually disruptive, violent and dangerous,” SSNUs were designed to “provide a [prisoner] who has identified significant mental health concerns…the opportunity of a specialized treatment program to assist him/her in returning to a general population.” It’s supposed to last up to eighteen months—“unless extended by the SSNU Treatment Team.”

The SSNU is a five-phase program that gradually rewards prisoners with group sessions, time in chow halls and increased access to their property in exchange for good behavior. Phase 5 is solitary confinement; it includes twenty-three-hour-a-day isolation, minimal if any privileges and access only to “basic personal hygiene items.”

“Phase 5 is generally the starting point for an offender in the SSNU,” said Klopotoski, explaining that a prisoner will stay there until he or she “has remained misconduct free for a sufficient period of time.” The end goal is Phase 1; inmates who reach it can leave the SSNU and return to the Special Needs Unit. Sources say this is where McClellan was supposed to be.

But psychologists who have worked in the SSNU at SCI Cresson say that corrections officers (COs) or unsympathetic members of the SSNU Treatment Team can easily stall a prisoner in Phase 5, meaning that some prisoners remain in solitary confinement indefinitely.

* * *

There are conflicting reports about the degree of McClellan’s mental problems. One prison psychologist said he was schizophrenic. Another said he was merely an addict. His father did not believe he was mentally ill at all. His attorney disagreed.

What is known is that McClellan was hooked on crack cocaine at 20 years of age. He committed small-time robberies and accrued a lengthy rap sheet. The last judge who sentenced him, for posing as an undercover police officer and stealing $180, seemed frustrated by his inability to avoid trouble. “The defendant has…had plenty of adult time to seek help and to have straightened himself out,” wrote Judge Amanda Cooperman, sentencing him to five to eleven years despite guidelines that prescribed a maximum of eighteen months.

The elder McClellan said his son’s last prison stint didn’t become particularly difficult until 2007, when he was at a Philadelphia-area facility designed for drug rehabilitation. He got into an argument with a guard, who, according to McClellan Sr., discovered that the younger McClellan’s father was a police officer. The guard reportedly shared this information with his co-workers as well as with other prisoners. Fearing this could put him in danger—in the words of the elder McClellan, “Who knows if I put one of these guys behind bars?”—the younger McClellan requested a transfer to another prison. There, according to his father, he again encountered a retaliatory CO who reportedly shared the names, addresses and occupations of certain family members with his colleagues and threatened to hurt them. The younger McClellan sent letters to his father saying he filed grievances against the CO and was rewarded with additional time in the RHU.

“Every time he wrote up a grievance, it got worse,” his father said. “They would come back, write him up for something and put him in the hole sixty days at a time.”

The same thing happened as McClellan approached parole eligibility, with guards reportedly manufacturing charges to keep him in solitary confinement. The parole board would deny his release, the elder McClellan said, “because of the write-ups, because when he was in the hole he was seen as a disciplinary problem.”

By the time the younger McClellan arrived at SCI Cresson last spring, he was convinced he was going to die. He told his father that COs had threatened to kill him and make it look like a hanging. His mental state was gradually deteriorating, and he was reportedly on medication, although it is not clear what he was prescribed.

McClellan Sr. recalls telling his son on the phone, “It’s not going to happen. They’re not going to lose their job because they want to get rid of you.” But his son insisted, “They’re going to hang me.”

On May 6, 2011, McClellan was found hanging in his cell. The DOC did not release details, but his father says administrators told him he had hanged himself from the ceiling sprinkler system.

The elder McClellan has a hard time believing his son was capable of committing suicide. “If he did, the point is that maybe he just had enough. Maybe he just couldn’t take it anymore—the abuse, the harassment. I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it either.”

Sources collaborating with the DOJ investigation don’t believe that McClellan Jr. was murdered. But they do believe that a pattern of sustained abuse, compounded by extended periods of isolation and a lack of oversight among administrators, led a vulnerable inmate to take his own life.

* * *

While a number of officials oversaw McClellan as he deteriorated, one in particular has been repeatedly identified by sources as neglecting his duties at best or, at worst, purposely mistreating unstable prisoners. That man is SCI Cresson’s chief psychologist, James Harrington.

Harrington has been named as a defendant in at least ten civil rights cases filed by prisoners in Pennsylvania’s Western District since 1995. All but one have been dismissed, a number of them on technicalities like missing a filing deadline. But two pending suits filed last year allege that Harrington was complicit in the abuse of mentally ill prisoners. One source with knowledge of psychology procedures at SCI Cresson cites a behavioral plan, co-created by Harrington and implemented last year, prescribing “such barbaric treatment as removing [a prisoner’s] mattress for extended periods of time as a viable means of obtaining behavioral compliance.” In one complaint filed in June 2011, the plan was described as “relying heavily upon extended isolation…essentially designed to simply break the inmate down to where he is ‘willing’” to cooperate. This could take “2 years or more.”

Damont Hagan, who spent time in SCI Cresson between 2010 and 2011, filed a suit in October claiming that Harrington refused to approve his mental health treatment unless he stopped filing grievances over abuses in the SSNU. Another prisoner, Christopher Balmer, claimed that despite being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, he was transferred by Harrington and other administrators from the SSNU to the RHU, where he was saddled with enough continuous solitary confinement time to stretch into the year 2039. In his complaint, Balmer wrote that solitary confinement causes him to feel suicidal and that ignoring his mental health problems amounts to “deliberate indifference to serious medical need.”

Hagan’s and Balmer’s cases were publicized by the Pennsylvania-based Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner advocacy group whose members contacted state legislators, the DOC’s internal affairs investigation unit and the DOJ. Lending weight to their claims is the suicide of another prisoner at SCI Cresson in March. James Willett, 24, was found dead while living in the general population. A source with knowledge of psychology procedures at SCI Cresson says Willett—serving a seven- to fourteen-year sentence for rape—had “repeatedly requested” mental health treatment but those requests were denied. A DOC press release said the county coroner’s office and the state police would conduct an investigation.

Willett’s suicide offers further evidence of what insiders say is the total corruption of the mental health treatment program at the prison under Harrington, who, according to the June complaint, has shown “profound willful indifference” toward the “suffering of lower functioning or profoundly emotionally disturbed inmates placed under his care.”

“The SSNU should be moved out of SCI Cresson,” the source says. “They have destroyed it. The [psychology department at SCI Cresson] needs to be flushed and started over with new staff.”

The role of James Harrington is particularly revealing in the case of former SCI Cresson prisoner Tracey Pietrovito. Tried at 18 for arson and murder, the young man with an IQ of 70, according to witnesses from local hospitals and social service providers, was a classic “unwanted child,” shuffled through as many as forty foster homes. Accused of torching a YMCA in the middle of the night, Pietrovito was held responsible for the deaths of four people, including a volunteer fireman. In 1988, Judge Albert Stallone sentenced him to life plus three-to-twenty years.

“I don’t know if Tracey ever got a break in life from anyone,” Stallone said tearfully, according to the Reading Eagle, “but perhaps he is getting one from me today.” That “break” amounted to a chance at freedom. Stallone speculated that, “in 17, 18, or 19 years, when the Board of Commutations feels this man is ready to be released,” Pietrovito would be set free.

That never happened.

Today, Pietrovito is 44. A SCI Cresson psychologist says that in addition to his developmental problems, he has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Sources told the DOJ last year that Pietrovito was languishing in Phase 5, with no sign of being moved out. His mattress was removed, so he slept on concrete. He was stripped of his clothing and shoes and issued a nylon “anti-suicide smock”—a tear-resistant garment with an open back.

Sources say that while Pietrovito had tried to commit suicide in the past, he wasn’t suicidal when he was placed in Phase 5. He would sometimes become unreasonably angry and yell, but he hadn’t said he pondered killing himself. Yet, rather than allow him access to the anger management sessions that are part of Phase 5, Pietrovito was kept in solitary confinement 24/7, overseen by guards who simply did not want to deal with his mental illnesses.

Further details of Pietrovito’s confinement approach descriptions of torture. Sources say that guards would refuse to provide him with toilet paper for significant periods—forcing Pietrovito to wipe himself with his hand—and then refused to provide him with soap before he ate his meal, served without utensils. The only window in Pietrovito’s cell, they said, could not be properly shut, and temperatures frequently approached freezing. Pietrovito also said that he was afraid to eat because COs who slid his meals into his cell would sometimes hint that they’d put feces in his food—a common allegation among prisoners subjected to solitary confinement throughout the state. When Pietrovito refused to eat, COs would file exaggerated or false disciplinary reports, extending his time in the hard cell.

A former SCI Cresson psychology staff member reported that Harrington had been made aware of these allegations but that he responded with indifference. And the same source who described the “barbaric” behavioral plan Harrington helped devise wrote to the Pennsylvania Department of State last summer to complain about the treatment of Pietrovito, which included being mocked for his low IQ. At one of the monthly review sessions that are part of the SSNU protocol, Harrington also reportedly refused to go forward until Pietrovito agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” to entertain the group. (Harrington did not respond to letters or to voice messages left at his home.)

Pietrovito was transferred to a different prison in August. Asked about the allegations, Susan Bensinger, a DOC press secretary, said the DOC is “always reviewing policies and procedures to ensure [prisoners] are receiving proper mental healthcare.” But the former SCI Cresson psychologist says, “This is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.” Indeed, sources point to a culture of fraternization and blurred professional boundaries among prison administrators. Of the four people who oversee the prison’s mental health unit, two of them are a married couple and the other two have been friends since grade school. Following the complaints about Pietrovito’s treatment, the COs were merely reshuffled—moved from the SSNU into the RHU where the younger McClellan and Balmer were housed.

* * *

DOC denied multiple requests to tour SCI Cresson’s SSNU, without explanation. The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association declined to comment on the DOJ investigation. And Pennsylvania’s Open Records Office denied requests for information about training or instructions provided to COs before they work full time with mentally ill prisoners. However, course descriptions available online confirm what many DOC employees have said: there is a single training course required for all COs assigned to work in an SSNU to “provide an overview of the continuum of the mental health services delivery system in the PA DOC.” It lasts only six hours.

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley known for his expertise on the effects of solitary confinement, says that this is insufficient—and also typical. “It is standard procedure to have COs with very inadequate mental health training,” he says. (In Pennsylvania, COs are required to hold a GED and to pass the state’s civil service exam to qualify for work.) The lack of training leads to escalating conflicts.

“Someone cuts themselves or gets unusually vocal or begins to act otherwise irrationally, and they’re seen as malingering. Those prisoners, they’ve never done that before. But it’s a bizarre symptom of solitary confinement. Instead of getting treatment—which is what they need—they’re punished further and accused of faking an illness or a symptom.”

Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who has interacted for years with prisoners in solitary confinement settings, concurs.

“Nearly every prison has one paradigm,” he says. “If you take a rational actor who can respond to rational forms of punishment, that actor may stop doing what you want them to stop doing if they’re punished…. But most [prisoners] are there because of a mental illness or an addiction. These people are impulsive, often emotionally out of control and with cognitive impairments. So that familiar prison paradigm often doesn’t work with these people. But unfortunately that’s often the only tool prisons have. So it’s like that old saying, If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The result, he said, is a revolving door for solitary confinement; prisoners act out, get thrown in the hole, act out again, get more time in the hole—and so on. “To change that,” he says, “you need a total paradigm shift.”

Such a shift seems unlikely to come from the courts. In the 1982 Pennsylvania case Hewitt v. Helms the Supreme Court upheld solitary confinement, ruling that prisoners have no special right to be incarcerated in a prison’s general population. Another important decision came down in Madrid v. Gomez in 1995, which resulted in the removal of mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Conditions there hovered “on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience,” the court ruled.

But as Simon van Zuylen-Wood pointed out in The Nation last year, “Since the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996, which limited the courts’ ability to challenge prisons’ authority, deference to prison officials has been the norm. Courts have been reluctant to tell states how to run their prisons.”

Still, as the same article points out, some civil rights advocates believe that now is the moment to take on solitary confinement in court.

* * *
Read the rest here: http://www.thenation.com/article/167459/why-are-prisoners-committing-suicide-pennsylvania

This article appeared in the May 7, 2012 edition of The Nation.
http://www.thenation.com/article/167459/why-are-prisoners-committing-suicide-pennsylvania

See also the article about this in SolitaryWatch.com