Jerome Murdough case: Rikers tragedy highlights prisons' poor record on mental health

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The tragic story of Jerome Murdough—a homeless Harlem man who was arrested for trespassing and literally baked to death in an overheated Rikers Island jail cell—cries out for a discussion on the treatment of the mentally ill in prison.

That Murdough, 56, was even arrested at all reveals the ways in which prisons are misused and overused in the United States, the world’s largest jailer.

Murdough, an ex-Marine who was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, found refuge in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing project.  That was his crime, and the reason why police arrested him.  And due to faulty equipment, his jail cell rose to over 100 degrees which, perhaps in combination with his medications, he died.  Further, Mr. Murdough apparently was the victim of neglect, as he was on suicide watch in a mental observation unit and was supposed to be observed every 15 minutes.  But he was discovered dead four hours after the fact.

The problem with America’s criminal justice system is that far too often, our prisons are the repository for the mentally disabled.  Not a repository, but the de facto repository, with 20 mentally ill people in prison for every bed in a psychiatric hospital.  From the 1970s to the 1990s, as the ACLU points out, the U.S. prison population ballooned, just as the states closed their psychiatric hospitals.  Patients with mental illness found themselves on the streets without treatment and, in many cases, in jail or prison—and for longer periods of time than people without a mental illness.

According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in 2006, over half of all prison and jail inmates in the country—including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of all jail inmates— had a mental health problem.  Shockingly, 43 percent of state prisoners and 54 percent of jail inmates had symptoms of mania, while 23 percent of state prisoners and 30 percent of jail inmates reported symptoms of major depression.  Meanwhile, 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates reported symptoms of a psychotic disorder.

Further, nearly a quarter of prisoners with a mental health challenge had served three or more prior incarcerations, as opposed to a fifth of other prisoners.  And around three-quarters of prisoners with a mental illness suffered from substance abuse.  15 percent of immigration detainees are mentally ill, a figure which is on the rise.  Women in prison are disproportionately impacted, as are juveniles, who are often medicated to sedate them rather than treat them.

Moreover, many correctional facilities turn to so-called supermax prisons and administrative segregation to deal with mental illness.  Solitary confinement, the practice of locking up inmates for 23 hours a day without human contact, makes people mentally ill, and only worsens the conditions of those already coping with mental illness.

In a clear example of good intentions gone bad, America pioneered the use of solitary confinement in the nineteenth century as a means of rehabilitating prisoners.  It all started in the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia—in my neighborhood, ironically enough—and the practice was abandoned until it made a comeback in the 1970s.

Today there are 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement throughout the country, including 12,000 in California, where the infamous Pelican Bay prison was sued by the Center for Constitutional Rights for the unconstitutional living conditions of prisoners there.  Some are placed in solitary for years on end, even decades on end.  The devastating psychological and physical damage of solitary is well documented.  And people of color are overrepresented in these gulags.

The United Nations recognizes solitary confinement as torture.  Last year Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, urged the U.S. to abolish solitary confinement for prolonged and indefinite periods of time.  “Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture,” he said.

“I urge the U.S. government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances,” Méndez  added, “including an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”

Through my work with Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row survivors, I have witnessed the impact of solitary confinement on innocent men and women.  These individuals, a majority of whom are black, brown and poor, were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit, and were released after spending a decade on average awaiting their own execution.  Some came within hours of their execution, and were even fitted for their burial clothes.  It is no wonder that these survivors have suffered as a result of this unspeakable psychological trauma, and grapple with PTSD, addiction and numerous mental health challenges, typically without receiving a penny in reparations from the government.

Prison was once regarded as a place for rehabilitating people and giving them another chance.  But now, prison is a place where America throws away its perceived problems, the poor, people of color, and the mentally disabled.  Many become mentally ill in prison or their conditions worsen, and in the case of the Jerome Murdoughs of society, prison kills them.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove