Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Solitary Torture

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According to the Center for Constitutional Rights over 80,000 U.S. inmates are currently being held in solitary confinement for 22-24 hours a day, some of them for years on end. In many cases their only physical exercise involves being taken in handcuffs and shackles to pace back and forth in another solitary location.

Originally this form of confinement was seen as a way of encouraging offenders to reflect on their misdeeds and experience repentance and a changed life, but it turned out that it was far more likely to lead to psychosis. In the past century such cells have been used more and more frequently as a means of punishing troublemakers in prison, sometimes including "jail house lawyers"advocating for fellow inmates, along with truly violent and incorrigible inmates.

In our local jail segregation cells are used routinely for disciplinary reasons, and sometimes for the protection of an inmate who is in danger of being harmed by his or her cell mates. Such sentences in the “hole,” for either the prisoner’s protection or for in-jail violations, may be for weeks at a time.

In all fairness, overcrowding at our local jail, along with challenges of limited budget and personnel have Sheriff Hutcheson and his staff stretched to their limit. Our jail, built for 208, is double bunked and typically houses from 375 to 400 inmates, some having to sleep on the floor. The Sheriff feels he has few choices at times but to resort to using the restraint chair, segregated cells, and even the dreaded isolated padded cell, which is sometimes used for suicidally depressed persons they fear might harm themselves.

It doesn't take a mental health professional to know that prolonged confinement behind bars is certain to have a negative impact on anyone's emotional and physical health, and to be deprived of human contact and normal forms of sensory stimulation and physical activity in a solitary cell will have an even greater crazy-making effect.

Our Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail has a contract with Southern Health to provide at least one nurse on site around the clock to meet the medical needs of inmates. In addition, a retired MD from Staunton is available on a marginal-time basis.

But for mental health needs, the jail has only its annual contract with our local Community Services Board, a board of which the sheriff himself is a designated member. This paltry $15,600 annual agreement is sufficient to only cover the cost of a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner for three hours a week.

We can, and must, do far better than that.

For an earlier post on this subject, go to this link.
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