FC Joins SHaRC to Oppose Prison Mental Health Units

Submitted by admin on Thu, 05/10/2007 - 17:35

Freedom Center is a member of SHaRC, the Statewide Harm Reduction
Coalition, and we join in opposing the proposed creation of new mental
health treatment units in MA prisons. Read the testimony before the legislature that SHaRC recently presented.

The Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland SecurityOversight Hearings on Prison Suicide and Prison Mental Health Tuesday, May 1, 2007 1:00 PM, Room B-1

Testimony of the Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition

1. Introduction

Reading: The Pain of the Soul – letter from prisoner Billy S.

Hello, we are members of the Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition. As a grassroots group of family and friends of prisoners, we have a perspective, grounded in experience over many years, that legislators and policy makers lack access to. It is good to be here today. We think the General Court's understanding of suicide and the problems of those deemed mentally ill in Massachusetts prisons has been framed too narrowly, and we fear the proposed solutions will not work. We have an alternative perspective and set of solutions to offer.

As of today there are close to 2,300,000 people in prison. The individuals we are talking about today, those who have purportedly committed suicide, have family and friends standing behind them, and we, as SHaRC members, will be here to continuously remind everyone of this. As we look around this room it is apparent that the greatest experts on the issues of suicide in prison are not here--the prisoners themselves! It is essential that any review take into account the voices of those who have been silenced far too long. As the reading we began with stated, these suicides will continue until individuals can have have a sense of empowerment and hope.

2. Role of Prison Conditions in Generating Hopelessness

The current discussion around suicide within the DOC is too narrowly defined. Some suicides will likely prove to be murders. As well, DOC policy and practice creates the conditions which incite and assist suicide. For the record, SHaRC does not believe that all those said to have killed themselves did nor that all deaths as a result of state sanctioned violence have been reported. Further, why does the panel assume that all people who committed suicide were mentally ill?

Psychology and criminal justice point to character to explain why people go to prison and their behavior inside. Rather, it is institutions that shape individuals. Intended as a two week simulation of prison life, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment “had to be ended prematurely after only six days because, as experiment leader Philip Zimbardo writes, “our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” This Experiment also illustrates how the “culture of cruelty” --endemic in youth detention centers, mental institutions, jails and prisons--is perpetuated.

While we acknowledge that some behaviors may be diagnosed mental illness, designating and placing the focus on “mentally ill” prisoners allows administrators, guards and staff to evade responsibility for the cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions to which suicidal and other prisoners react. Further, labeling people as “mentally ill” masks “disablement” caused by child abuse, poverty, racism, sexism, etc.. Coping responses to inequality and unhealthy and unsafe conditions must be differentiated from mental illness. Counterproductive measures meted out for such coping responses punishes individuals unfairly for the harms we have inflicted upon them. Vitally important questions are not asked such as why so many are diagnosed mentally ill and how do we restore social policies and practices to alleviate disability while fulfilling human rights obligations, reducing crime rates and ultimately, prisoner suicides.

The International Convention Against Torture governing imprisonment has been ratified by the U.S. From the extremes of sensory deprivation to seemingly mundane daily occurances, prison policy and practice violates human rights. In addition to concerns about our international obligations these violations of rights mean that many leave prison worse off than when they went in. Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is caused by incarceration. 60% of prisoners have been in prison before. They are at even greater risk for further harm, again subjected to “environments of punishment with few opportunities for education, job training, or rehabilitation. The symptoms are most severe in prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and severe institutional abuse.”

With regard to the recent investigations into DOC suicides, we must ask if it is advisable to believe that DOC administrators, staff and guards are always truthful? In our experience, collusion among is common in falsifying reports to shift responsibility onto prisoners for DOC wrongdoing. We do not believe that all recent mortality reviews provided to Mr. Hayes are truthful and are dismayed by the lack of skepticism by legislators.

Will the DOC satisfactorily implement whatever recommendations are ultimately settled upon? “Spinning” an allowed gathering as a riot, in direct contradiction to one Harshbarger commission recommendation, the warden of Shirley Medium effectively raised the security classification level 3/4 to 5/6. Prisoner's are now allowed out of double bunk cells for only 1 and 1/2 hours per day. Imagine living with another person, locked in a space the size of your bathroom for 22 and 1/2 hours a day. We have included in our written testimony letters on this subject to various legislators, including Senator Barrios. We learned later that other wardens also effectively raised security levels in this manner. Nothing was done to rectify this disregard of just one recommendation paid for by Massachusetts taxpayers. We also believe that the added duress has contributed to prisoner suicide.

Public servants, including DOC staff and guards, take every opportunity to spin issues, including suicide, for their desired result. Even should we agree that Mr. Hayes’ recommendations would solve the problem, which we do not, there would be more than enough available for programs by reallocating funds within the DOC.

With the loss of most programs and privileges during this “tough on crime” era, the DOC, using increasingly punative procedures now has near total control over prisoners. However, labor costs have gone up, as Massachusetts now has one guard for every two prisoners, more than every state but one. Meanwhile, due to the large numbers of non-violent drug war prisoners, the population is less dangerous. It is the violence done and allowed by the Commonwealth which has worsened.

Enforcement of increasingly restrictive policies prohibiting prisoners from suicide, which are the centerpiece of the Hayes report, will only replace symptoms of a failed system with others. More “suicide-resistant” Residential Treatment Units, increased observation of those on suicide watch and pre-service and in-service training time will do nothing to address the causes of prison suicides, some of which we have touched on above.

3. Some Recommendations and Conclusions

We do not believe the prison system can be reformed. Evidence based analysis has led us to conclude that locking people away from their communities causes more harm than it cures. Therefore, we are prison abolitionists.

While we are idealistic, we are also pragmatists. We realize that while we work to make the prison industrial complex unnecessary, we must ensure the safety and well being of those who were sent by society to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Therefore, we recommend a few practical steps to take us all in a new direction.

We call for a 5 year moratorium on prison and jail construction and expansion in Massachusetts, and the establishment of a commission to study and recommend rights affirming changes in policy and practice to eradicate overcrowding, including ending mandatory minimums, as outlined in House bill 1723, the text of which you will find in our supporting documents.

We call for citizen oversight of the Department of Correction, Parole Board, and county houses of correction to ensure accountability and transparency. There must be public oversight of the boards and committees that review disciplinary cases of prisoners or guards, classification of prisoners, sentencing calculations, and parole and probation.

We call for the implementation of the rights affirming recommendations of the 2004 Harshbarger Commission Report, in particular the step-down model of classification to successively lower prison security levels and, and restoration of programs, including education, job training, and work release. We also want to see opportunities for civic engagement.

We call for the immediate closure of Departmental Disciplinary Units, Secured Housing Units, and other forms of isolation and sensory deprivation, including supermax prisons. Under international standards for human rights, extended isolation is banned as a form of torture. (see Kammel and Kerness: “The Prison Inside the Prison”).

While we support some of the recommendations of the Hayes report for managing suicidal situations, we also criticize the report for viewing the problem of suicide with such a narrow lens, as indicated earlier.

We reitierate, while a large percentage of prisoners enter prison disabled, many diagnosed “mentally ill”, the prison system itself manufactures disability and mental illness. Therefore, in addition to eradicating the harmful “culture of cruelty” inside confining institutions, community harms causing disability must also be discerned and addressed. Yes, prisoners need better care. But so do the communities they come from. Addressing the harms of physical, psychological and sexual abuse by changing harmful relationship models, starting with those between government parties and the people, is essential. To remediate the current harms we must make significant investments in forming caring communities with safe living conditions, single payer healthcare, treatment on demand, individual and group therapy, where basic human needs, which are human rights, are met. We must reduce the over-reliance on medications, many of which also cause harm. With proper allocation of funds and proper c
itizen oversight, these remedies can become realities for prisoners and our communities. There is absolutely no need, if root causes are addressed, for building costly special residential treatment units or more jails and prisons.

As our final and most important recommendation, we ask that you listen to the real experts on prison suicide, mental health, and safety—the prisoners and ex-prisoners themselves.

In closing, we repeat that our primary goal is to end the abuse of power exercised by the administrators, guards and staff in the DOC and the county “correctional” system. To end this abuse, we want meaningful consequences and effective remedies to put an end to continued rights violations. If all of us are serious about ending this epidemic, we must eradicate every policy and practice that engenders the hopelessness and despair driving prisoners and others to suicide.

[Closing poem by prisoner]
The Cemetery of the Living

The cemetery of the living, this I call the place;
Where my heart beats, my blood flows, yet it has no one to embrace.
Many have visited, not everyone survives;
It’s not a horror story, and now I’ll tell you why:

Time is hard, lonely, and unforgetful;
The dead rest in peace, but this rest is painful.
I had many by my side, upon entering these walls;
The ones I called my friends were the first who I lost.

My Baby’s Mother took my daughter away, I ask why?
Every night I ask God to watch over her, as I cry.
Mom and dad, even they fell apart,
How much more can one take to the heart?

I live but I’m dead, and in this casket I lie.
In prison, the cemetery, I speak of today,
I guarantee my soul will never stay!!

March 9, 2005
Bay State Correctional Center