Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘solitary confinement

“Sexual Assault and Abuse Rampant in Immigration Detention Centers”

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That’s the headline of this Campus Progress report (h/t: Adam Serwer). Immigration detention generally happens in private prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America or county jails that contract with ICE. LGBT detainees are especially at risk:

And at the San Pedro Service Processing Center in California, a guard forced a transgender woman to repeatedly perform oral sex on him while she waited for her attorney in a holding cell. Even after she reported the incident, the staff took so long arranging for evidence collection that she was forced to wait overnight to wash out her mouth.

Violence against LGBT detainees, in particular, is a growing problem, as they are especially vulnerable within the detention system. In addition to being singled out for harassment as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, transgender women often face the added risk. They are often housed with male detainees and supervised by male guards. Under those conditions, transgender women are even more susceptible to violence than those held in women-only facilities. …

Unfortunately, efforts to safeguard this particularly vulnerable population have proven distinctly harmful as well. For instance, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted site visits of seven Southwest detention centers last year, they were troubled to find that some facilities attempted to protect LGBT detainees by keeping them in solitary confinement—a harshly punitive measure often used in prisons to discipline disobedient criminal inmates.

Written by sara

October 20, 2010 at 9:27 am

Questions Remain in Death of Mentally Ill North Carolina Inmate; Kept in Solitary for 1,400+ Days

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After spending much of his life in the custody of North Carolina (whether in a mental hospital or prison), Timothy Helms died this week of complications from an August 2008 fire in his prison cell at Taylorsville, in the course of which his skull was smashed. Despite conducting an investigation, the prison system remains unable to provide a conclusive account of how he received his injuries. The Charlotte Observer has the story, which highlights — among other things — how solitary confinement, which many psychologists do not hesitate to call to torture, has become a default means of “caring” for the severely mentally ill in our society. From the Observer:

Helms had an IQ of 79 and had attended special-education classes until he dropped out of high school at 16. Diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, he was frequently admitted to state mental health facilities, including Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.

He was sentenced to three life terms on three counts of second-degree murder following a 1994 drunken-driving collision. Helms, who did not have a driver’s license, claimed a drinking buddy who died in the accident was driving.

Helms’ disabilities made him a difficult inmate for the prison system. In 14 years behind bars, he racked up 125 rules infractions, ranging from threatening to harm staff and possessing a razor to using profanity and hoarding 84 postage stamps.

As punishment, he had spent at least 1,459 days in disciplinary or administrative segregation – terms used in North Carolina to describe solitary confinement. He was let out of his maximum security cell at Alexander Correctional Institution only a few hours each week to shower or go to an outdoor recreation cage.

Correction Department policy is that no inmate should be housed in isolation for more than 60 days in a stretch, a period prisoners commonly refer to as being in “The Hole.” But Helms’ prison records show he was kept in isolation 571 consecutive days.

Written by sara

September 9, 2010 at 7:10 am

Where Prison Law Meets Medical Privacy Law

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From the Boston Globe:

A federal judge in Boston ordered a former contractor for the state prison system yesterday to provide him with the psychiatric treatment records of about 25 inmates who committed or attempted suicide while in solitary confinement from 2005 to 2007.

US Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf gave the University of Massachusetts Correctional Health Program until Aug. 27 to turn over thousands of pages of mental health reviews written by therapists after the suicides and attempts. He wants to determine whether he can legally turn them over to a nonprofit advocacy group that has sued the state over the care of mentally ill inmates.

UMass Correctional Health, which is not a defendant in the suit and is a program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, contends that federal law requires the records to remain confidential under a privilege between psychotherapists and patients. The only way the privilege can be waived, UMass said yesterday, is if the inmates, or their representatives, give permission to release them.

As I’ve noted before, it’s long been observed that extended isolation yields disastrous mental health effects, and psychiatrists who’ve studied these effects consider long-term solitary confinement to be torture. On this subject, Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article remains a must-read overview.

Written by sara

August 12, 2010 at 5:47 am

Homicide at San Quentin Raises Questions about Prison Safety

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Last week, Edward Schaefer, who was about two weeks into a 24-to-life sentence for killing 9-year-old Melody Osheroff in a motorcycle DUI, was fatally stabbed by another inmate in the yard at California’s San Quentin prison. The suspect is Frank Anthony Souza, who is serving a 60-year sentence for beating and strangling a San Jose homeless man. The state Inspector General’s Office has suggested that it may investigate the killing, particularly whether Schaefer should have been kept in the general population. (Inmates whose crimes involved killing a child may be vulnerable to retaliation by other inmates and are sometimes held in solitary or protective custody for that reason.) From the Marin Independent-Journal:

Lt. Sam Robinson, a spokesman for San Quentin, said that when Schaefer arrived at the prison, he initially was kept in administrative segregation, a cell by himself away from the general prison population. Inmates typically are placed in administrative segregation, often referred to as isolation or “the hole,” for disciplinary reasons.

Robinson said administrative segregation differs from the prison’s security needs yard, where inmates such as gang dropouts and snitches are placed for protective custody.

Robinson said Schaefer initially was placed in administrative segregation, not because prison officials believed him to be at risk of attack but because he had been in administrative segregation when he was paroled from Soledad Prison in 2007.

On July 21, Schaefer was moved after consultation with prison officials, Robinson said. “He felt comfortable with moving on to the general population here in our reception center,” Robinson said. “He expressed no reservations about living in our general population.”

And from the Independent-Journal‘s editorial board:

Some say Schaefer got what he deserved.

But that’s not the justice our legal system meted out. … Aaron, Melody’s father, wanted Schaefer to spend his time behind bars reflecting on what he had done. He says Schaefer got off too easy.

Written by sara

August 4, 2010 at 11:00 am

“California prisoners’ rights often trampled”

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That’s the headline of this Sacramento Bee investigation into the “602 process,” or the set of procedures by which the California prison system adjudicates grievances and disputes. Based on a review of CDCR data as well as a number of interviews, reporter Charles Piller found a pattern of “widespread suppression of inmates’ rights to contest allegations by guards or pursue claims of mistreatment”:

Current and retired officers, prisoners and parolees allege that correctional officers and their superiors routinely file bogus or misleading reports, destroy or falsify documentation of abuses, and intimidate colleagues or inmates who push back.

Sources with firsthand knowledge called the problem pervasive, offering dozens of examples. Even if the allegations are valid for a fraction of cases, thousands of prison terms could have been extended improperly at vast cost to taxpayers.

One of the more disturbing stories in the article is that of Kenneth Hernandez, who suffered from a skull fracture, facial paralysis, seizures, and vomiting after a prison guard threw him head-first into a metal locker, then was found guilty of assaulting an officer and lost five months of good-time credit and a year of family visits.

Written by sara

August 2, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Supermax Prisons and the “Field of Dreams” Problem: If You Build It, They Will Come

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David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, has an op-ed at Huffington Post on whether America’s supermax prisons violate international human rights law. The fact that extended isolation produces psychosis in humans has been recognized since America’s first (failed) experiments with solitary confinement at Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s. The idea was that prisoners kept in cells by themselves would have nothing to do but think about what they’d done wrong. In reality, as quickly became apparent to prison wardens, they simply went crazy. Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article remains the best general-audience summary of the case for defining solitary confinement as torture.

Fathi’s op-ed provides some essential historical background on just how the U.S. came to have tens of thousands of inmates in extended solitary confinement. As won’t surprise students of the past 30 years in criminal justice policy, it’s a story that combines “tough-on-crime” demagoguery, the criminalization of mental illness, distorted legislative and executive incentives, and a heavy dose of path dependence:

In the 1990s [supermax prisons] were a raging fad, yet another round in the perpetual “tough on crime” political bidding war. Suddenly every state had to build one — Virginia was so tough it built two. By the end of the decade, more than 30 states, as well as the federal government, were operating a supermax facility or unit. …

The official line is that these prisons are reserved for the “worst of the worst” — the most dangerous and incorrigibly violent — but most states have only a few such prisoners. In overcrowded prison systems, the typical response has been to fill the remaining supermax cells with “nuisance prisoners” — those who file lawsuits, violate minor prison rules, or otherwise annoy staff, but by no stretch of the imagination require the extremely high security of a supermax facility. Thus in Wisconsin’s supermax, one of the “worst of the worst” was a 16-year-old car thief. Twenty-year-old David Tracy hanged himself in a Virginia supermax; he had been sent there at age 19, with a 2 ½ year sentence for selling drugs.

The mentally ill are vastly overrepresented in supermax prisons, and once subjected to the stress of isolated confinement, many of them deteriorate dramatically. Some engage in bizarre and extreme acts of self-injury and even suicide. In an Indiana supermax, a 21-year-old mentally ill prisoner set himself on fire in his cell and died from his burns; another man in the same unit choked himself to death with a washcloth. It’s not unusual to find supermax prisoners who swallow razors and other objects, smash their heads into the wall, compulsively cut their flesh, try to hang themselves, and otherwise attempt to harm or kill themselves.

The good news is that it’s quite possible for states to turn back from this path. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, Mississippi slashed the number of inmates in solitary confinement from 1,500 to 150.

Federal Judge: Illinois Supermax Procedures Violate the Fourteenth Amendment

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An Illinois federal judge has ruled that the procedures (or lack thereof) for sending prisoners to the Tamms supermax violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee. At Tamms, all prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. They spend 23 hours a day in their cells and, as “recreation,” are allowed one hour to walk around alone in a steel cage. U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy ruled this week that before inmates can be sent to Tamms, they must be afforded notice of why and a hearing at which they can challenge their transfer. Culminating ten years of litigation brought by Chicago’s Uptown People’s Law Center, Judge Murphy’s ruling emphasizes that it extends only to procedural issues and not to conditions in the prison, which he describes as “clean, excellently administered, and well staffed.” However, a local newspaper’s investigative report last year found that Tamms is often used as a de facto asylum for mentally ill inmates, and that many have been held in solitary confinement there for over 10 years. Psychiatrists suggest that solitary confinement longer than 90 days produces mental breakdown, and some argue it is tantamount to torture.

H/t: Solitary Watch, where you can find more information about this case.

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