(*Photo courtesy Jenn Ackermann. See her award-winning photographs of the mentally ill in confinement here.)
"If you want to know where they are all being kept," said Todd Winstrom, "they're down in the hole."
Winstrom, a staff attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, was talking about what happens to mentally ill offenders when they enter his state's prison system. Without treatment options--and without anyplace else to put them--these prisoners quickly end up in solitary confinement, where they may remain for months or years.
Since solitary confinement has been shown to cause severe psychological trauma in prisoners without underlying psychiatric conditions, it would be difficult to imagine a more damaging place to incarcerate the mentally ill.
Winstrom was quoted by Jessica VanEgeren of Madison's Capital Times as part of her June 10, 2009 investigative report on mentally ill inmates in Wisconsin correctional institutions. VanEgeren, who led a breakout session on "Treatment of Mentally Ill Offenders" at this month's 5thannual H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, described a destructive cycle in which these prisoners--untreated, unmedicated, and sometimes undiagnosed--were placed in "segregation" and left isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day.
At three prisons involved in a recent state audit, she reported, between 55 percent and 76 percent of the inmates in segregation were mentally ill.
Wisconsin is far from alone in these practices. While there are no national statistics to indicate how many mentally ill prisoners end up in lockdown, a 2003 report from Human Rights Watch,based on available data from states around the country, found one-third to one-half of prisoners held in what are usually called "secure housing units" (SHUs) and "special management units" (SMUs) were mentally ill.
The report concluded that "persons with mental illness often have difficulty complying with strict prison rules, particularly when there is scant assistance to help them manage their disorders".eventually accumulating substantial histories of disciplinary infractions, they land for prolonged periods in disciplinary or administrative segregation."
The "Worst of the Worst"
Investigative reporting has been key in exposing the treatment of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement in several state prison systems. Last year, a series of articles by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer in the Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat documented the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Illinois's Tamms supermax prison.At Tamms, prisoners deemed "the worst of the worst" are kept in virtually permanent lockdown, in conditions that "some critics say amounts to torture worse than that experienced by suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay."
[ED NOTE: Pawalczyk and Hundsdorfer won the 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting (series category) for their work.]
The News-Democrat chronicles the story of Faygie Fields, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was in and out of Chicago mental hospitals before he, like so many others, made the short leap from asylum to prison. In prison for murder since 1984, Fields exhibited behavior typical of many inmates with untreated or undertreated mental illness: He was unruly and sometimes violent with guards, and he threw food, urine, and anything else he could get his hands on. When Tamms opened in 1998, Fields became one of its original residents.
After he had been "held alone and often naked in a segregation cell for nearly six years," the paper reported, two psychiatrists brought into the prison examined Fields and his medical records and diagnosed him as a schizophrenic in urgent need of treatment. Fields' schizophrenia diagnosis had been dismissed by two Department of Corrections psychiatrists and Tamms' supervising psychologist, who thought he was faking his behavior. The latter testified, in a court case on prison conditions, that his self-mutilation was part of something prisoners did to "compete with each other to see who can cut because it's fun."
Faygie Fields was eventually moved to a mental health unit at Tamms, where he receives treatment but still lives in solitary. The 30 years added to his original sentence for offenses committed in prison mean that he will likely die there.
Pawalczyk and Hundsdorfer's reporting helped fuel hearings on Tamms by the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on Human Rights, as well as a "ten-point plan" for reforms at the prison, released by the Illinois Department of Corrections in September 2009. (Critics say that while the plan does call for certain improvements, it does not address many of the abuses at Tamms, particularly those concerning treatment of the mentally ill.)