In January of 2013, Jose Bautista was arrested on a misdemeanor charge following a family dispute. Unable to afford the $250 bail, Bautista ended up a cell in Riker’s Island where, a few days later, he tore his underwear, looped it around his neck, and tried to hang himself off the highest bar in his cell. Though four correction officers quickly rushed in and cut him down, rather than notifying medical professionals, they handcuffed Bautista and forced him to lie face down on the cell floor where they repeatedly punched him with such force that he suffered a perforated bowel and required immediate emergency surgery.
The assault on Jose Bautista is not an isolated incident, but merely one of many episodes in which a mentally ill inmate was treated with overwhelming brutality by the criminal justice system. Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, incarcerates approximately as many people with mental illnesses as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. The United States is facing a public health crisis where the responsibility to treat the majority of mentally ill individuals has fallen on our nation’s prisons, which do not have the appropriate resources to effectively help these individuals.
Further, the trauma of the prison environment can often exacerbate the mental health conditions of inmates due to the routine use of harsh punitive measures such as extreme isolation. Over 9 percent of people in New York State prisons are in solitary confinement – a rate 40 percent higher than in the early 2000s in New York and more than double the national average of 4.4 percent. Every day, nearly 4,500 individuals across New York spend 23 hours a day, deprived of all meaningful human interaction or mental stimulation, in small, barren cells. In some of these prisons, over half of the inmates in solitary confinement have been identified as seriously mentally ill. This unregulated practice has been psychologically debilitating to those it afflicts. Over 40 percent of all suicides in New York prisons in the years 2014-2015 took place in solitary confinement.
As a result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union concerning the treatment of inmates in solitary confinement, New York State agreed to a 5 year, $62 million plan to overhaul the way solitary confinement is used in its prisons. The changes are expected to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement by at least a quarter and reform the system in a number of ways, from limiting the time served to three months to providing prisoners with certain privileges, such as monthly phone calls and group recreation activities. However, to what extent are the terms of this settlement a meaningful “overhaul,” rather than simply a set of incremental changes that will continue to leave thousands of mentally ill individuals in solitary confinement and suffering due to lack of appropriate care? Though these plans aim to limit the use of extreme isolation, they do not abolish it. Therefore mentally ill inmates will continue to face solitary confinement as a punishment, exacerbating their existing mental health issues.
Furthermore, these planned reforms fail to address the lack of adequate mental health resources currently offered to mentally ill prisoners. It is not enough to merely limit the use of solitary confinement when it comes to mentally ill inmates, and it is definitely not enough to simply reform solitary confinement without ensuring measures that work to provide appropriate mental health treatment and services to prisoners in dire need.
Lack of treatment for prisoners and the trauma caused by the routine use of extreme isolation are primary reasons for why mental health problems continue to be so prevalent in the prison system. Practices such as isolated confinement are directly contradictory to efforts to provide mental health treatment for inmates. So why are these methods continued to be used and funded in U.S. prisons?
In order to develop a more integrated and comprehensive approach to rampant mental illness in the United States’ criminal justice system and dismantle “the revolving door” of arrests and incarceration associated with mental illness, comprehensive policies must be targeted towards tackling the institutional healthcare problems that have engendered this crisis, rather than further legitimizing a system that criminalizes and abuses the mentally ill.