Crisis in Correctional Care: Mental Illness

Apr 1, 2014

Fifty years ago, this country began closing mental hospitals where people with psychiatric disorders were often warehoused. 

The idea was to send patients back to their communities, where they would live better lives with help from local mental health programs. 

Unfortunately, those services were limited, and many people ended up on the streets or behind bars.  Today, up to 18% of inmates in Virginia prisons are taking drugs for psychiatric conditions, and critics say some are being punished because they can’t comply with prison rules.  

Virginia has about 30,000 inmates in state prisons, served by 14 psychiatrists.  The numbers don’t surprise Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit that does research and lobbies for alternatives to incarceration.   He says most prisons are unprepared to deal with this psychiatric tsunami:

“About one of every six people in prison has a history of mental illness. Often times issues are not diagnosed very well.  The level of care available is pretty minimal.”  

And many inmates find it difficult to cope.  Thirty-one-year-old James Harvey was recently released from the Coffeewood Correctional Center near Culpeper. “You know I’ve seen guys that went in there and couldn’t handle the stress of being locked up.  They put in a sick call to see the psychiatrist or something like that, and it takes them 30-45 days, and the next thing you know, they’rehanging themselves in a cell.”

Other troubled inmates end up in solitary confinement. The state of Virginia prefers the term segregation, since inmates are allowed to speak with each other and with visitors, but State Delegate Patrick Hope, who recently toured Virginia’s Supermax prison -- Red Onion -- says that’s a small distinction. “They can speak to visitors in segregation, but the fact is very few people can take the time to visit Red Onion.  It’s the southwest corner of the state.  It’s a six hour drive to Richmond, a seven hour drive from Arlington, and nine hours from Virginia Beach.”

The state also points out that prisoners in segregation usually get one hour a day in a small, outdoor cage for so-called recreation.  But ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita is not impressed.
“You might get rec one hour a day, five days a week, if the correctional guards decide that you can get it that day.  You receive your food through a tray slot.  You have no physical contact with anybody. “

In county or city jails, the situation may be even worse.  Harvey Yoder is a Mennonite minister and family counselor who often visits the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.  That facility spends less than $13,000 a year on mental health care, and suicidally depressed inmates may be placed in padded cells. “A person is stripped of their clothing, given a paper gown to wear, and the cell itself has nothing in it --  no mattress or anything.  There’s a grate in the floor that has to be used for a commode.  It’s just abominable.”

Yoder and other mental health professionals have offered to counsel inmates at no charge if the local sheriff agrees to stop using padded cells.  Delegate Hope says the state has been making progress - taking people out of segregation at Red Onion, and putting them in programs that teach anger management and other coping skills. For the sake of all Virginians, he says, that must be done.   

“About 90% of all the prisoners in Virginia will one day get free, and  when you put someone in segregation for long periods of time, they become seriously mentally ill, and I worry about their next victim, I worry about their next crime.  That’s why the public should be outraged about the way we’ve been treating people in segregation to this point.”

The state says its Step Down program rewards good behavior with more time for recreation and the chance to have community meals, and it notes with pride that there have been fewer problems with violence and misbehavior since the program began.  Thirty-seven inmates at Red Onion are not taking part, and critics worry their mental illness makes it impossible for them to do so.