From Inside Supermax: Mentally Ill Prisoners (12 of 18)

I’ve heard quite a few references to inmates who are assumed to be mentally ill and you’ve related a number of anecdotes where you’ve mentioned guys who sound like they are seriously unbalanced. How prevalent is what appears to be obvious mental illness in prison and do these inmates appear to arrive that way or do some become that way as a result of the environment and in Ad-Seg, the isolation? Do you think the system should do something different with those inmates who are mentally ill?

I have read cases in law books where psychologists testify about the psychological harm ad-seg causes upon people. McClary v. Kelly 4F.Supp.2d 195 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) is such a case where two shrinks faced off and debated the ill effects of Supermax prisons on inmates. One of the doctors, Dr. Grassian, testified that every inmate in Supermax “will react to the toxicity of that environment.” Even the opposing shrink didn’t dispute that Supermax can psychologically devastate people and exacerbate pre-existing mental illness. In another case, Spellman v. Hopper, 95F. Supp 2d 1267 (M.D.ALA 1999) former deputy director of Colorado DOC testified that a “relatively sane” individual can very quickly have severe psychological distress and become “psychologically disadvantaged”. This is the opinion of a prison expert, not and inmate coddling “softie”.

I don’t remember the exact statistics, but I’ve read that substantial portions of the prison population have psychological problems. I know from my personal experience that Colorado uses its Supermax to warehouse troubled inmates they don’t want to deal with and their conditions are only worsened. There is a guy in my pod right now who is convinced that he is a cyborg. I’ve seen a nut job with feces smeared all over himself taunted by the shrinks here. Needless to say we were not pleased to see that and spoke our minds.

Colorado does have a prison designated especially for inmates with severe psychological problems but it is so jam packed that it can house only the most extreme cases. Colorado’s solution? Build a second Supermax. I’ve met guys in here with schizophrenia, extreme bi-polar mania, and even mild retardation. I think it is unconscionable that instead of treating the mentally ill, the system is content to warehouse them in an environment proven to make their conditions worse. As an inmate in Supermax, it is annoying to be around them because they are so disruptive. Every time they break their fire sprinkler, play with their feces, go off on the cops, or cut on themselves, the unit stops all normal operations like taking us to the shower or phone. You can’t get mad at the crazy guy, it’s not his fault (though many guys do take it out on him), but it is still frustrating for us. I can imagine how difficult it is on the staff who are not trained for it. They simply don’t belong here.



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