The Deadly Consequences of Mental Illness in Prison…and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

7 Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 5/8/24

by | May 8, 2024

This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:

A lengthy feature in the New York Times explores how prisons and jails across the United States have become the nation’s largest providers of inpatient mental health treatment. It’s estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 currently incarcerated people have a serious mental illness, which is ten times higher than the number of people with serious mental illness in hospitals and treatment facilities. Carceral facilities are often dangerously unequipped to provide adequate treatment to incarcerated people with mental health issues, and many end up in solitary confinement due to behavioral problems resulting from untreated mental illness. Solitary confinement exacerbates mental health issues and can even be deadly. In one case, a man with repeated hospitalizations for mental health lost 50 to 60 pounds over three weeks in solitary confinement before dying of organ failure due to a “refusal to eat or drink.” However, documents from the resulting wrongful death lawsuit showed that prison staff did not attempt interventions like initiating intravenous feeding or transferring the man to a facility with more mental health treatment options. New York Times 

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Six incarcerated people are suing Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and the Department of Corrections Commissioner for forcing them to perform unpaid labor. The plaintiffs allege that they were punished or threatened with punishment, including solitary confinement, if they refused to work. In a statement to the Center for Constitutional Rights, one plaintiff called out Alabama officials for remaining “loyal to and act[ing] in unity with their racist slave legacy from the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era, continuing to deliberately make, enforce and defend bad policy decisions and practices, knowing it results in the demise, disadvantages and disenfranchisement of poor whites and African-Americans.” Montgomery Advertiser

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A New Hampshire jury has awarded $38 million to David Meehan, the man who first sued the state for abuse suffered at the New Hampshire Youth Development Center. The jury took only three hours to issue a verdict in Meehan’s favor, determining that $18 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in “enhanced” damages were “full, fair, and adequate” for the harm suffered. (The state said the amount will be reduced to $475,000 under its law that caps damages.) According to Meehan’s lawyers, the case sets a landmark precedent for the nearly 1,200 other lawsuits that have since been filed on similar grounds against the state. U.S. News | Following the filing of Meehan’s lawsuit in 2020, eleven former Youth Development Center staff members have been criminally charged for their roles in the abuse. Among the allegations by other plaintiffs are accusations of prolonged solitary confinement, forced fist-fights, beatings, and rape at the hands of staff. Inside Edition

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Although staff and officials continue to deny the existence of solitary confinement at the DC Jail, social worker Brittany Vazquez reports the use of isolation at the facility may be worse than on Rikers Island. During her first time on North 1 unit, Vazquez says she observed dirty and dark living conditions, officers incapable of managing incarcerated people outside of their cells, and men who exposed their genitals to her as she walked to the case manager’s office. What’s more, many of the people in solitary confinement at the DC Jail are there for nonviolent reasons such as protective custody, minor rule infractions, or behavioral problems resulting from mental health issues. Washington City Paper

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Efforts to define solitary confinement in Maine law failed earlier this year amid disagreements over how the term should be used and amendments advocates viewed as unacceptable. When proposed, LD 1086 intended to define solitary confinement as “the isolation of a person in a cell or other place from the general population of a prison or jail for 22 hours or more in a 24-hour period.” Without an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes solitary, advocates and oversight bodies would be unable to hold the Department of Corrections accountable for claims by incarcerated people that they are being held in solitary. News From The States

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Jimmy Dennis was arrested and incarcerated in 1991 for the murder of a high school student. In 2013, a judge overturned his conviction because prosecutors and homicide detectives ignored evidence that proved Dennis did not kill the high schooler. Instead of going to trial, Dennis accepted a deal that would allow him to be released in 2017 if he pled guilty to third-degree murder. After spending 25 years in prison, most of which were in solitary confinement, Dennis was released, but prosecutors claimed that his plea deal made him ineligible to sue for wrongful conviction. However, a jury recently refused this claim and awarded Dennis $16 million as compensation for for the city of Philadelphia’s and investigating officers’ “malicious or wanton misconduct.” Wonkette

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Christopher Blackwell, an incarcerated journalist and recipient of a Ridgeway Reporting Project grant from Solitary Watch, describes the “hell” of returning to jail. Blackwell, who has been in prison for more than 20 years, was placed in Washington State’s Pierce County Jail for two weeks before his resentencing was supposed to take place. During this time, he recounts how the other 800 men around him were “experiencing the worst days of their lives” and deprived of all previous coping mechanisms, including access to necessary psychiatric medications. The resulting high rates of violence in jail lead some people to intentionally get placed in solitary confinement by either refusing their initial placement or acting out. The Appeal

ACTION ALERT: The Federal Anti-Solitary Task Force (FAST) is hosting a virtual National Day of Action on Thursday, May 16, to call for the passage of the federal End Solitary Confinement Act (ESCA). Learn more and sign up to participate at Unlock the Box.

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