Mental Illness Behind Bars: A Disaster In The Making

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by Antonio Ponvert III
The Hartford Courant

December 3, 2003

This state's prison system is on a collision course with a catastrophe that will take lives, endanger correctional staff and result in substantial costs to Connecticut taxpayers. At any given moment, approximately 12 percent of the inmate population in Connecticut - 2,400 of the roughly 20,000 prisoners currently incarcerated - are in need of mental health treatment. In the course of a year, the number is considerably higher. This rate of serious mental disorder vastly exceeds the rate in the general population. These disorders include major psychosis, schizophrenia, severe depression and suicide attempts.

The Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown serves as the Department of Correction's primary psychiatric care facility for offenders requiring mental health treatment. But mentally ill prisoners are housed throughout the system, and many find themselves in maximum-security facilities or other general housing units where their mental illness goes unrecognized and untreated. Even at Garner, where the department provides the highest level of psychiatric care and supervision that it is capable of providing, mentally ill inmates have in recent years been allowed to refuse their anti-psychotic medication and become violently psychotic, to repeatedly inflict life-threatening injuries on themselves and to threaten other inmates and staff.

On one occasion at Garner, a schizophrenic man with a long history of severe psychiatric illness was intentionally deprived of his medication, became agitated and was fatally asphyxiated while being shackled by guards. At other facilities, mentally ill inmates have committed suicide in their cells, have been denied basic medication and treatment, have mutilated themselves with items found in their housing blocks or given to them by guards and have been repeatedly tied down by their hands and feet, often for many hours or days at a time.

Centuries ago, the mentally ill were routinely imprisoned, mistreated and even tortured and killed for failing to follow rules that they couldn't understand or for acting in ways that they couldn't control. In this century, and even in the last few months, the world has witnessed unbelievable horrors inflicted by barbaric regimes on the mentally ill and on other helpless and defenseless people. News clips of abandoned mental "hospitals" in Baghdad are but one example. The mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners in Connecticut bears a disturbing resemblance to these shocking scenes.

One inmate at this state's maximum-security facility was intentionally denied anti-psychotic medication that had been ordered by his psychiatrist and then tied to a steel bed frame for 22 hours. Another young schizophrenic man at the Hartford Correctional Center was asphyxiated by guards and then - while unconscious and dying - injected with powerful sedatives, shackled to a bed and left in a cell, naked and alone. He was discovered dead several hours later.

These incidents took place recently in Connecticut; not in a totalitarian state or in the Dark Ages.

The mental health facilities of the Department of Correction are woefully underfunded and understaffed, and the department's correction officers lack even rudimentary training in how to deal with mental illness in the correctional setting. Yet, tragically, the number of mentally ill prisoners behind bars shows no sign of abating. These inevitable trajectories will create a perfect storm in this state's correctional system, taking the lives of many more mentally ill prisoners, risking serious injury to other inmates and staff, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in legal awards.

This year's Department of Correction budget exceeds $550 million. Advocates for the mentally ill hope that Gov. John G. Rowland and the General Assembly will work together to divert mentally ill offenders from incarceration so that they may be treated in more appropriate settings. Until that day, the department should spend a greater share of its substantial budget to care for this profoundly unfortunate inmate population and to train the correction officers who are charged with their care and well-being.

Antonio Ponvert III is a civil rights lawyer in Bridgeport. He has represented many prisoners in litigation against the state Department of Correction, including several of the prisoners mentioned in this article.

Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant