Correctional facilities in Alaska are confronted with a record number of prisoners with mental illnesses. In February 2016, KTUU reported that 65% of Alaskan prisoners suffered from some form of mental health problem while 80% had drug or alcohol addictions. The lack of resources to properly treat those prisoners has resulted in disastrous, even deadly consequences.
According to the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC), 42% of state prisoners have a diagnosable mental illness or cognitive disability. Of those, 20% are considered “severely and persistently” mentally ill.
Many prisoners with mental health problems are confined for crimes that were committed due to their mental illness. In June 2016, Alaska Dispatch News reported ongoing discriminatory treatment in the parole process for prisoners with mental health issues, including violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. Treatment for mental illness is not easily obtainable, and prisons and jails have become de facto mental health facilities. In fact, there are three times as many beds in Alaska’s jails as there are at the state’s psychiatric hospital, which focuses mainly on people having mental health emergencies.
The 50 beds available at the Alaska Psychiatric Institution (API) are designed for short-term placement. “Alaska’s history, traditions and culture have long placed a strong emphasis on individual liberties and individual rights,” said Melissa Ring, API’s director. “There has been a conscious decision within the state government to uphold those rights and not have institutionalization in hospitals and nursing homes. Therefore, few of such placements are available. And the laws are very stringent regarding rights of persons with mental illness to choose whether to receive treatment, take medication, stay in a hospital, or live in a shelter or on the street.”
However, the choice to receive treatment is not easily accomplished once made. To obtain mental health services, the “person must have the presence of mind and tenacity to navigate a complicated system that can be daunting in the best of circumstances,” Alaska Dispatch News reported, citing Francine Harbour, director of the Anchorage chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Mark Bolus, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, tried to receive treatment from an Anchorage non-profit but his mother, Maria Ruthburn, said he was too “high functioning” and was turned away. “He wasn’t crazy-crazy,” said his friend, Zane Miller.
Bolus’ inappropriate behavior landed him in trouble with the law, which made it harder for him to find a job and housing. In a short time, his mental illness led to a probation violation and jail. Incarceration is not a good setting for the mentally ill.
“No, it’s not a therapeutic environment,” said Steve Williams, chief operating officer of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The default “treatment” is typically isolation because prisons are ill-equipped to deal with people who have mental health problems. The results can be deadly, as solitary confinement is known to exacerbate mental illness.
Two mentally ill prisoners died while in segregation at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, among a spate of other deaths in ADOC facilities. In April 2014, Davon Mosley, 20, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, died of bleeding ulcers – a treatable condition. He had reportedly threatened to commit suicide, was pepper sprayed and tried to wash off the spray using water from his toilet. California prison guards who arrived to extradite him to face charges in California refused to take him into custody due to his mental health condition, and he spent several days naked in his cell without treatment before he died.
The following month, on Mothers’ Day, Mark Bolus hung himself in his cell. “I wonder if he thought he was giving me a gift,” said Ruthburn, “in the end of 10 years of his suffering.”
Bolus’ suicide, as well as the deaths of Mosley and other Alaskan prisoners, prompted an independent investigation ordered by the governor that found significant problems in the ADOC. Specifically, among other deficiencies, it found that suicide prevention guidelines had not been updated in two decades; that there was an inadequate internal investigation process for reviewing prisoner deaths; that people who were jailed for being drunk did not receive adequate medical care; and that the use of solitary confinement was questionable in some cases.
According to another finding, state attorneys with the Alaska Department of Law had discouraged thorough reviews into prisoners’ deaths by expressing concerns “that documenting all the facts around an inmate death might make it easier for the state to be found financially liable for the death.”
Following the results of the investigation, which Governor Bill Walker called “troubling” and “disturbing” at a November 2015 press conference, prisoners in solitary confinement are now supposed to receive visits from mental health workers twice a week, who will provide more thorough check-ins. Additionally, the ADOC said it was adding a third unit at the Anchorage Correctional Complex to offer clinical services for mentally ill prisoners.
ADOC Commissioner Ron Taylor resigned on November 15, 2015, apparently as a direct result of the investigative report into prisoner deaths.
Regardless, Ruthburn called the continued practice of imprisoning people with mental health problems a sad state of affairs. “When incarceration is the best a parent can hope for, something is very wrong,” she said. “We all failed.”
Sources: Alaska Dispatch News, www.ktuu.com
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