His death made national news because it is the third suicide this year within the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Human rights activists are concerned about the effect coronavirus is having on people in prisons, especially those being treated for mental illnesses.
The crisis has caused prisons across the United States to lockdown their populations for safety reasons, and these lockdowns have prevented the continuous care of those with mental health problems.
Adding to the issue, the cash bail system in America forces people to await court dates in jail, where they may be prevented from receiving care that they would normally receive outside of jail. It is disproportionately people of color who are most affected by these problems.
Ocasio’s bail was $10,000, which means he was only required to deposit $1,000 with the courts and would receive the full amount in refund after his scheduled appearance. Even if he could not afford the $1,000, he could hire a bail bondsperson for much less to aid with his release.
Like many disadvantaged citizens, Ocasio was unable to produce any amount to secure his release. This not only prevented him from aiding in his defense in a more suitable environment, but also interrupted any type of treatment he may have been receiving for his mental health issues.
Department of Corrections Director of Behavioral Health Services Thomas Kocienda had suspended all group programming and mental health assessments in the state’s prisons except for minors, due to the COVID-19 crisis, ctmirror.org reported. He also had suspended elective individual outpatient psychotherapy for those patients with a mental health score of 3 or lower, unless their clinic requires it. Individuals with a score of 3 or less make up 96% of the prisoners with mental health problems.
Staff are forced to do cell-side triages, assessments, and check-ins. This means that therapy is conducted through the cracks in the steel door, which affects confidentiality and trust. Clinical social worker Shirley Watson of MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution said it makes it hard for the patient to feel like he or she is in a safe place. “I call it ‘drive by therapy,’ because you really can’t get substantive information on an inmate and their health,” she said. “This is not what I signed up for, to be standing outside of a cell door trying to help people and knowing that you’re as handcuffed as they are.”
August 24 was the last time Watson had to treat a prisoner at the cell door. The COVID-19 crisis is declining and certain restrictions are being lifted in Connecticut’s prisons. But still, staffing shortages are making it difficult for prisoners to be escorted to Watson’s office for appointments, and social distancing is going to require more space than she now has. She also is concerned that the current situation needlessly endangers prisoners classified as “low risk.” Those with a score of 1 or 2 will not be seen unless they initiate a visit when they need support.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login