In 1990, Jack Powers was put in prison for robbery. A few years into his sentence, Powers witnessed the murder of one of his friends by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Powers agreed to be a government witness and testify against members of the Brotherhood in exchange for a sentence reduction, but when he was denied the reduction, he decided to escape from prison in 1999.
He was caught a few years later and put in solitary confinement at ADX, the same place where the Brotherhood members he testified against resided. Even though Powers was diagnosed with PTSD due to his friend’s murder, he never received proper treatment and ended up horrifically mutilating himself several times.
As disturbing as it may be, Powers’ story is not exactly unique. A commonly accepted figure from the Bureau of Justice found that there are about 80,000 prisoners being held in solitary confinement across the U.S. A disproportionate amount of these prisoners have some form of mental illness.
According to reports obtained by the Human Rights Watch, numbers vary from jail to jail, but the trend of isolating mentally ill prisoners remains consistent throughout. For example, approximately one-third to one-half of Indiana’s Secure Housing Unit’s prison population has mental illness, according to a report obtained in 1997. During the same year, a federal court found that about half of prisoners with mental illness in the Iowa State Penitentiary had been segregated for disciplinary purposes. In 2002, it was found that 30.21% of the segregated prisoners in Corcoran state prisons had mental illness. California state prisons and the Valley State for Women had higher percentages, with 31.85% and 65.91% respectively.
One of the main problems is that prisoners with mental illness often have a much harder time following strict prison rules. Many guards see their mental illness as nothing more than a burden, and solitary confinement has become the default punishment for those with such illnesses. Unfortunately, solitary confinement can make the prisoner’s mental illness worse and has shown to have absolutely no effect in reducing violent crime.
Inmates in solitary housing have to spend the vast majority of their time in a cramped cell. They are often denied basic needs. For example, Nicole Natshke spent over a year in solitary. She spent long periods of time — at least 12 days or more — without a shower and was denied any sort of quality medical treatment. Her psychiatrist, whom she only saw once every two months, had refused to give her any sort of medication despite diagnosing her with PTSD and depression.
Other inmates, such as Alex, have described that prisons make it almost impossible to sleep as the beds are uncomfortable, the lights are always on, and the rooms are filled with the sounds of buzzing doors and inmate screams. Combine inhospitable conditions with mental illness and a lack of suitable treatments, and you get a recipe for disaster. Much like Jack Powers, many inmates are very prone to self-harm. In fact, data shows that those in California’s solitary confinement cells are extremely disproportionately at risk of committing suicide. In 2005, it was found that solitary confinement inmates were only 5% of the prison population, but made up 69% of the suicide victims.
The statistics are bleak, but there is hope. Just recently, President Obama had banned the use of solitary confinement for minors and the Indiana Department of Corrections has taken similar steps to aid prisoners with mental illness in solitary confinement with an agreement to reduce the use of segregation and by actively providing treatment for those in need. This change could affect about one-fifth of the state’s prisoners. The program, called Intent on Shaping Individual Growth with Holistic Treatment (INSIGHT), will provide many services for prisoners with mental illness, including at least ten hours of weekly therapy.
The Stepping Up Initiative, an organization which seeks to convince government and state officials to help prevent the abuse of prisoners with mental illness, has helped 231 different counties pass resolutions on how they treat their mentally ill prisoners. By taking a stand with groups like The Stepping Up Initiative, we can help improve the lives of the millions of people with mental illness who languish without treatment in prison or, worse, solitary confinement.
Cell door photo available from Shutterstock