A 2006 report for the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates,” estimated that 1.25 million people suffering from mental health problems were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. This is a four-fold increase from the BJS’s 1998 estimate of 283,000 prisoners with a mental illness.
Two recent BJS studies spotlight the horrendous conditions faced by the criminally insane in the American prison gulag. They reveal that U.S. prisons have become the dumping ground for an increasing number of mentally ill people and, more troubling, these people are subject to widespread and repeated sexual victimization. Prisons are coming to increasingly resemble hell on earth, a postmodern version of Dante’s 8th level of Hell, Malebolge, an amphitheatre-shaped pit in which panderers, pimps, seducers and others are whipped, ducked in boiling pitch and have their feet licked by flames.
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In March 2013, CBS’s primetime Sunday news program, “60 Minutes,” featured an exposé on prison conditions in Chicago. It profiled Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and argued, “with a shortage of mental facilities, jails have become the new asylums.” Sadly, the conditions found in Chicago are relatively humane compared to those found in prisons around the country. This is the sad lesson suggested by two recent BJS reports: “Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12: National Inmate Survey, 2011-12” (NIS), prepared by Allen Beck and others; and “Report on Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails” (RSV), edited by G. J. Mazza.
The NIS findings are pretty alarming: “In 2011-12, an estimated 4.0% of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.” It adds, “an estimated 3.6% of those identified with serious psychological distress reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, compared to 0.7% of inmates with no indication of mental illness.”
In real numbers, incidents of sexual victimization are significant. The total U.S. incarcerated population is estimated at 2.3 million. Using a 3.5 percent victimization rate, about 80,000 men and women, boys and girls as well as those identified as LGBT or suffering a mental health disorder are subject to some form of sexual violence.
More enlightened prison systems offer prisoners some form of mental health support. The NIS found “more than a third of prison inmates (35.8%) and jail inmates (39.2%) said they had received some counseling or therapy from a trained professional for these problems.”
Not surprising, those who saw a mental health professional were more likely to report being sexually victimized. Prisoner-on-prisoner sexual victimization is 3 to 4 times higher among prisoners who have received mental health counseling and 2 to 3 times higher among prisoners who take prescription drugs. The need for professional counseling is probably greater for those prisoners subject to solitary confinement.
In 2005, the Supreme Court found in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005), that “no study of the effects of solitary or supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects.” The mental health consequences from such confinement take many forms. Prisoners report an increase in problems sleeping, irrational anger, rage, lack of impulse control, confusing thought processes, hallucinations and depression, severe and chronic. Suicide and incidents of self-harm or self-mutilation (e.g., swallowing razors and repeatedly smashing his/her head against the wall) increase.
The “Report on Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails” (RSV) is an even more revealing indictment of the U.S. prison system. It provides detailed information about three so-called “High-Incidence Prisons.” Those who are most victimized by prisoner-on-prisoner sexual violence have the following characteristics: (i) being white or multi-racial, (ii) having a college education, (iii) having a sexual orientation other than heterosexual, and (iv) having experienced sexual victimization prior to coming to the facility. The characteristics of those who are most victimized due to staff sexual misconduct include: (i) having a college education and (ii) having experienced sexual victimization before coming to the facility.
Three prisons deemed high-incidence facilities were singled out:
• Fluvanna is a maximum-security prison for women in Troy, Virginia. It suffered a major scandal in 2007 when the former chief of security was charged with having sex with female prisoners. He was convicted the following year. The current administration concedes it suffers from short staffing during critical early-morning and late-evening hours, when most sexual victimization takes place.
• Allred is a maximum-security prison for men in Wichita Falls, Texas. During the 2008-2009 period, its capacity was 3,682. In 2009, 4,693 prisoners spent time at Allred; the average length of stay was 1,682 days, the longest stay was 5,306 days. Did someone say overcrowding?
• Elmira, located in Upstate New York, is a maximum-security prison for men. During the 2008-2009 period, its capacity was 3,682 and, in 2009, the total number of prisoners who spent any time there was 9,396. That year, two prisoners committed suicide and 11 attempted suicide.
The authors of the RSV study take up an advocacy voice, calling for system-wide changes. Knowingly, they insist: “We know that sexual assaults can be reduced by changing attitudes toward potentially vulnerable populations, including female, LGBTQ, and physically frail prisoners; paying close attention to institutional design and surveillance; providing offender education and staff training; improving operational policies and post orders; and monitoring adherence to established policies.”
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American prisons have become the new mental institutions, asylums for lost souls. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault notes that in 1656 the Hospital Général was founded in Paris. It was not a medical establishment, but a juridical institution seeking to instill moral and religious order in those so imprisoned. While ostensibly aimed at the confinement of the insane, it also housed the unemployed or idle, prisoners and the poor. The confined included those identified as “the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers” and “libertines.”
We’ve come nearly full circle in the last three-and-a-half centuries. As [New York Governor Nelson] Rockefeller-inspired lock-’em-up drug-related policies wane in the face of the mounting fiscal crises faced by local and state governments, nonviolent drug offenders are being replaced by the mentally ill. The sad situation is that there are dwindling facilities for the civil confinement of those designated criminally insane or mentally ill.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow point out, “the asylums where people with serious disorders could once receive care were mostly closed down by the end of the Reagan era.” They point out that a half-century ago, in 1955, there were 558,239 beds for severely mentally ill patients in public psychiatric hospitals. Going further, they argue that, based on population growth, the number of beds should have been 885,000 by 1994. Sadly, the number of beds in public institutions were only 71,619 and “perhaps another 70,000” in private psychiatric hospitals.
The authors conclude, pessimistically, “Indeed, a visit to almost any prison or jail makes it distressingly clear that these institutions now house many of the people who need mental health treatment.” These prisons have become a modern-day hell-on-earth.
David Rosen regularly contributes to Alter-Net, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and the Huffington Post; his website is www.davidrosenwrites.com. This article was published by CounterPunch (www.counterpunch.org) and is reprinted with permission.
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