The mentally ill suffer disproportionately in California prisons

Mentally ill prisoners need treatment

Eugene Alexander Dey is a Sacramentan serving a “three-strikes” sentence of 26 years to life for a drug offense at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. More of his work can been read at

The handcuffed inmate hung by his arms over the tier.

But this was not torture or brutality. Out of pure desperation, the inmate exploded past a correctional officer and jumped off the second tier. Miraculously, the officer hooked the inmate’s arm. While the first officer strained mightily to hold the inmate’s weight, another correctional officer arrived just in time to pull them both to safety.

Perhaps, given the extreme isolation, the inmate was enduring torture.

Treatment of the mentally ill is wrought with failure—one need look no farther than the homeless mentally ill on any city street—but in prison, this failure creates systemic human suffering. A quarter-century of prison-building kept pace with the mass closure of mental hospitals, leading to an exodus of the mentally ill into correctional facilities. More than 50 percent of the state’s inmates are estimated to suffer from mental illness.

The dual dynamic of mental illness and chronic addiction plaguing the incarcerated make them a difficult demographic to help. Despite the existence of various in- and out-patient mental-health services within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “crisis beds” in secure medical facilities are desperately needed.

A mentally ill inmate is in extreme danger on a facility’s mainline, where an “episode” mistaken for threatening behavior can result in serious injury. Prison workers are poorly suited to distinguish between insanity and criminality. Psychological afflictions are often misdiagnosed, not by clinicians, but by guards.

Inmates who belong in therapeutic communities are instead sent to administrative segregation units, designed for the “worst of the worst.” Mind-bending isolation results; ASU inmates are in their cells all but a few hours a week. New rules implemented in early 2007 allowing ASU inmates to possess a television or radio, in addition to an expanded list of “allowable” personal property, were intended to alleviate isolation. But numerous appeals filed by ASU inmates at the California Correctional Center in Susanville to expedite the property changes have been met with typical bureaucratic ineptitude.

From 2003–2006, 67 ASU suicides occurred throughout the CDCR. Though prison officials can point to a decrease in suicides in 2007, this is because of more frequent monitoring rather than from programs to deter the dark spirals of tortured minds.

Under the current policy of treatment denied, inmates will recidivate en masse. Programs with a proven track record are desperately needed. The current practice of warehousing the crazed with the criminal is a proven recipe for disaster.

Exactly why the jumper tried to kill himself is hard to say. Officially, no outward sign of suicide existed, but something beckoned him to jump. At best, in a well-provisioned mainline cell, it is often difficult to battle a legion of personal demons. Forcing a human being to live like an animal in a stripped-down concrete cell in a pair of boxer shorts, especially while in a fragile state of mind, has no place in modern society.