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Abuse Against Mentally Ill Prisoners Is 'Widespread' Across US, According to Human Rights Watch Report

According to the study, corrections officials in the United States use violence to punish prisoners for exhibiting behaviours of their mental illness, which violates the Constitution and international human rights laws.

av Allie Conti
2015 05 13, 8:00am

Paul Schlosser III, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, being pepper sprayed on June 10, 2012 by a correctional officer at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine. Via YouTube.

Anthony McManus weighed 75 pounds (34 kilograms) when he died. In 1997, the mentally ill 38-year-old publicly exposed himself and was put in a Michigan prison with no psychiatric facility, where his condition deteriorated rapidly. He would frequently talk about the devil, and spread urine and faeces around his cell. According to a lawsuit, prison staff would restrict his access to food and water in a cruel attempt to control his behaviour. As a result, he died – partially from emaciation – in 2005.

"Animals in animal shelters are generally given more attention and care than was afforded to McManus," a prison official later testified in court.

Sadly, he wasn't the only inmate in America to suffer such egregious abuse. A Human Rights Watch report released this morning gives multiple examples of corrections officials in the United States using violence to punish bipolar and schizophrenic prisoners for exhibiting behaviours of their mental illness. This tactic violates both the US Constitution and international human rights laws, the report says.

Related: Watch VICE News' documentary about the conditions the mentally ill face in Chicago's Cook County Jail.

To put together "Callous and Cruel Use of Force Against Inmates With Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons," HRW went through hundreds of suits, combed Department of Justice investigations, and interviewed 125 experts. What the nonprofit found is that the problem of punitive force against the most vulnerable people in the system is "widespread and may be increasing."

Prisoners who are mentally ill make up about 40 percent of the population in New York City, but are involved in 60 percent of all instances of misconduct, according to the report – a gap that can be closed with better mental health care in jails, experts say.

"Prisoners with mental health problems may act out and break rules more frequently than other prisoners," explains Dr. Bruce Gage, the head of psychiatry for Washington State's Department of Corrections, "but the behavioural manifestation of their illness will decline as the quantity and quality of mental health treatment increases."

However, rather than treat the mentally ill, officials often find it easier to segregate them. According to the report, sick inmates in South Carolina and Pennsylvania are more than twice as likely to be shoved into solitary confinement as healthy ones.

Correctional facilities across the country might do well to follow the example out of Massachusetts, which in 2012 opened two maximum security mental health treatment units. Prisoners there get 25 hours of recreation per week and are taught both social and behavioural skills that help them transition back to the general population. Good conduct is incentivised. Bad conduct is penalised, but by a brief loss of privileges, rather than physical punishment. As a result, the use of force on the prisoners put in these units has dropped by 60 percent, according to the report.

In contrast, it's clear that no one at the Michigan prison that McManus died in had any aspirations about rehabilitating him. "Even the layman across the hall, an obvious layperson... could tell that McManus was suffering," an official said in a deposition. "You could see that his eyes was turning yellow. His cheeks were sunken in, the skin on his frame was just hanging off his bones like clothes on a hanger." As the court concluded in that case, "Not a single defendant made a serious attempt to have him transferred to a facility that could treat his obvious mental illness."

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