Friday, September 20, 2013

Radio Interview on Mental Health Services for Inmates

Virginia Public Radio website
The following is from a five part series on "Crisis in Correctional Care" by Sandy Hausman, reporter for WVTF, Radio IQ and a group of stations known as Virginia Public Radio. The segment for which she interviewed me is on mental health services, but the series also addresses the aging of our inmate population, the practice of contracting with private companies for medical services and other concerns.

Thirty-one-year-old James Harvey was recently released from the Coffeewood Correctional Center near Culpeper:

“ Y’know I’ve seen guys that went in there and couldn’t handle the stress of being locked up.  They’ve put in a sick call to see a psychiatrist or something like that, and it takes them 30-45 days, and the next thing you know they’re hanging themselves in a cell.  I had two friends – one when he first came in, he told them that he was depressed and he’s had thoughts of suicide before and they put him in the holding area, and then they come back a couple of hours later, and he’s hung himself.  And then one guy that asked to see the psychiatrist – he thought he needed medication, and they put it off for 30-45 days, and they ended up finding him in his cell.”

Other troubled inmates end up in what some describe as solitary confinement. The state of Virginia prefers the term segregation, since inmates are allowed to speak with visitors, but State Delegate Patrick Hope, who recently toured Virginia’s Supermax prison Red Onion, says that’s a small distinction.

“They can speak to visitors in segregation, but the fact is very few people can take the time to visit Red Onion.  It’s the southwest corner of the state.  It’s a six hour drive to Richmond, a seven hour drive from Arlington, and nine hours from Virginia Beach.”

The state also points out that prisoners in segregation usually get one hour a day in a small, outdoor cage for so-called recreation.  But ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita says that, too, is solitary.

“You have no physical contact with anybody. We often hear from prisoners who write to us who say the only physical contact with another person is when they’re being shackled to be brought to the shower.  In Virginia they’re permitted to have three showers a week, five hours of rec time a week, and that’s it. “

Inmates can get out of segregation by taking part in special programs and consistently demonstrating pro-social skills, but Amezquita says people with mental illness can’t always do that.

And in county or city jails, the situation may be even worse.  Harvey Yoder is a Mennonite minister and family counselor who often visits the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.  There, suicidally depressed inmates may be placed in an isolated padded cell.

“A person is stripped of their clothing, given only a paper gown to wear, and the cell itself has nothing in it whatsoever.  No mattress or anything.  It’s void of any kind of visual stimulation, any kind of human contact, and your food is just given through a slot in the door, without any utensils to eat it with, and  there’s a grate in the floor that has to be used for a commode.  It’s just abominable.”

And, he says, those who pose a physical threat to themselves or others can be put in a restraining chair – their arms, legs and torsos strapped down for hours.  Often the chair is used to control prisoners deemed to be at risk for suicide.

“The jail is operated by a sheriff who is elected, of course, as all sheriffs are in Virginia, and one bad case of something terrible happening – someone hanging themselves, killing themselves in jail – just really tarnishes the image of the jail, so they take all kinds of precautions .”

Yoder and other mental health professionals have offered to counsel inmates at no charge if the local sheriff agrees to stop using these methods, and Delegate Hope says the state has been providing more programs to help prisoners cope with mental illness and anger.

"They’ve maybe committed an assault on a correctional officer, and a lot of those assaults have been because of a mental illness.  Maybe they’re bi-polar or schizophrenic, and so if you start to treat the underlying problem, then you can solve a lot of these behavior problems.  States like Mississippi and Maine have lowered their  inmates in segregation by 70 and 80%.”

He says some inmates are so violent that short-term solitary confinement is the only way to assure safety for staff and other prisoners, but for the future protection of Virginia citizens, Hope thinks we need to find better long-term approaches, because isolation is damaging to mental health and could make people more dangerous.  

“About 90% of all the prisoners in Virginia will one day get free, and so I think how we treat them in our jails is very important for when they get out into the community on the outside, and when you put someone in segregation, someone in isolation for long periods of time, they become seriously mentally, and I worry about their next victim, I worry about their next crime.  That’s why the public should be outraged about the way we’ve been treating people in segregation to this point.”

He believes the use of solitary confinement is a violation of the nation’s 8th Constitutional Amendment, prohibiting the use of cruel and unusual punishment, so courts could – eventually – put an end to this practice.  In our next report, we’ll look at the fastest growing segment of Virginia’s prison population – people over 60.  Their healthcare costs are far higher than the average, and the courts have required prisons to provide adequate care.  That reality could force Virginia to consider granting parole to elderly inmates, but many of them have no place to go.

I’m Sandy Hausman.

Check this link for audio and print versions of the series, and this for more of my posts on criminal justice issues.
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