One of the Darkest Periods in the History of American Prisons

Recent lawsuits and Justice Department investigations have uncovered grotesque abuses of mentally ill inmates at state and local prisons. Yet Washington refuses to investigate allegations of similar mistreatment at federal penitentiaries.
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(Reuters)

It has been an extraordinary three weeks in the history of the American penal system, perhaps one of the darkest periods on record. In four states, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, the systemic abuse and neglect of inmates, and especially mentally ill inmates, has been investigated, chronicled and disclosed in grim detail to the world by lawyers, government investigators and one federal judge. The conclusions are inescapable: In our zeal to dehumanize criminals we have allowed our prisons to become medieval places of unspeakable cruelty so far beyond constitutional norms that they are barely recognizable.

First, on May 22, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department released a report highlighting the unconstitutional conditions of a county prison in Florida. Then, on May 30th, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit alleging atrocious conditions at a state prison in Mississippi. One day later, the feds again sounded out on behalf of inmates, this time against profound abuse and neglect at a Pennsylvania prison. Finally, last week, a federal judge issued an order describing the unconstitutional "brutality" of the prison in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

There were many common themes in the reports. In each instance, the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates was highlighted. Prison officials have failed to provide a constitutional level of care in virtually every respect, from providing medication and treatment to protecting the men from committing suicide. In the Louisiana court order, one prison expert is quoted by the judge as describing an "extraordinary and horrific" situation with the prison there. In the Florida investigation, federal investigators noted that local prison officials "have elected to ignore obvious and serious systemic deficiencies" in the jail's mental health services.

Taken together, these developments shed welcome light on some of the worst government abuses of our time and demonstrate vividly the need for enlightened policies and more human decency and accountability from prison officials. But these lawsuits and investigations and court orders also beg a critical question: If the feds are so concerned with the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners in state and local prisons, why is the Justice Department so unwilling to undertake an equally thorough review of the similarly dubious practices and policies now being forced upon mentally ill federal prisoners by the Bureau of Prisons?

The findings from the Florida and California investigations, and the evidence and allegations in Louisiana and Mississippi, are remarkably similar to the evidence and allegations that have been made in two federal civil rights cases about inmate abuse and neglect within the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the ADX-Florence facility that includes "Supermax," America's most famous prison. Yet the Inspector General of the Justice Department has refused to investigate those allegations against federal prison officials. Nor has the Civil Rights Division of the Department. Nor has Congress. This is unacceptable.

Florida (the Atlantic)
In and around Pensacola, Florida, the Justice Department concluded three weeks ago that conditions at the Escambia County Jail manifestly violated the constitutional rights of prisoners there. There was the failure of jail leadership to adequately prevent, monitor and track terrible prisoner-on-prisoner violence. There were chronic and debilitating staff shortages. "Obvious and known systemic deficiencies," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy L. Austin, Jr. wrote, "continue to subject prisoners to excessive risk of assault by other prisoners and to inadequate mental health care." Here is the link to the letter.

In their report, the feds listed some of the many ways in which Escambia County fails to meet the constitutional needs of its prisoners:

1) the Jail does not afford prisoners timely and adequate access to appropriately skilled mental health professionals; 2) the Jail routinely fails to provide appropriate medications to prisoners with mental illness; 3) the Jail provides inadequate housing and observations for prisoners with serious mental illness and/or risk of self-injury, including suicide, and; 4) On average, the Jail sends roughly one prisoner per month to the hospital after an incident of self-injury, a rate our expert found indicative of a clearly inadequate mental health program.

Calling the jail's staffing levels for mental health services "grossly inadequate," the Justice Department noted that the jail "employs only a single part-time psychiatrist for the entire facility, and relies heavily on unsupervised trainees to screen and evaluate prisoners for mental illness. Using trainees in this way leads to missed and inadequate diagnoses. . ." Moreover, the feds wrote, jail records revealed "that many of those requesting mental health care never get past the trainee to see an actual mental health professional. . . expos[ing] prisoners to a serious risk of harm." Here is just one exampled offered by the Justice Department:

A prisoner was admitted in 2012 with a history of suicide attempts while incarcerated, most recently in 2011. An initial screening conducted by an intern indicated that the prisoner had a history of schizophrenia with auditory and visual hallucinations and possible retardation and a history of four or five suicide attempts by hanging. After conducting a review of this record, the intern cleared the prisoner for placement in the general population with a referral to psychiatry.

The prisoner was seen by the psychiatrist five days later. The psychiatrist noted that the prisoner was hallucinating and diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with "poor insight and judgment." Notwithstanding this diagnosis, the prisoner remained housed in the general population without a mental health treatment plan or any follow-up by the a mental health professional. Nine days after his admission to the Jail, the prisoner attempted to kill himself by hanging, and was only prevented from doing so because two prisoners intervened.

Subsequent to this incident, the prisoner was returned to general population without a treatment plan.

Mississippi (Gulf Stream Waters)
On May 30th, the ACLU filed a long-awaited federal lawsuit against state officials for the atrocious conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. "The lawsuit filed today," the lawyers wrote, "describes a facility where [mentally ill] prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners' beds, and some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates."

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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