Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Punishment for people with mental disabilities

Michigan's march toward the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness and its lack of adequate funding and services in the community has culminated in a crisis in the prison system. The Detroit Free Press in its Sunday edition (2/5/12) features an article by Jeff Gerritt, "Punishment Instead of Treatment: Hundreds of mentally ill inmates languish in prisons ill equipped to treat them". The article follows the life of a young Michigan man, Kevin DeMott, and his struggles with mental illness and incarceration.

According to the article, Kevin has exhibited sudden fits of rage since the age of 4, started taking psychotropic medications at 9, and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at 11. At the age of 13, he held up a Little Caesars pizza store with a toy gun, but fled before collecting any cash. After placement in juvenile facilities in Iowa and Michigan and problems with marijuana use, he was sentenced to prison at the age of 15 with credit for time served. This was the beginning of a downward spiral, however, as he racked up additional misconduct tickets for what appears to be behavior related to his mental illness rather than an inclination toward a life of crime. 

"He has spent nearly a year of his current prison term in segregation [isolation], where his mental health problems appear to be punished instead of treated" according to Gerritt. One example cited in the article is when kevin "ripped a suicide blanket in order to hang himself. He was found guilty of destroying property, ordered to reimburse the department $145 for the blanket and given 12 day's loss of privileges." A horrible picture of Kevin taken in January of 2011 illustrates his predicament: he is chained to a bed with a helmet strapped to his head after refusing an order to stop banging his head against the wall.

Kevin is not alone. Trapped in a system that was never designed for the treatment of mental illness, more than 20% of Michigan's prisoners have severe mental disabilities, according to a 2010 University of Michigan study. Michigan closed three-quarters of its 16 psychiatric facilities between 1987 and 2003, and "now provides fewer beds per capita than all but five other states."  In addition, according to the article, 65% of those with severe mental disabilities in prison received no treatment in the previous 12 months. Of the 1,000 prisoners in administrative segregation (where prisoners "are handcuffed when they leave their cells, eat off serving trays pushed through the slots of steel doors and generally lack the few privileges extended to those in the general population…") the percentage of those who are mentally ill is likely more than in the overall prison population.

What does this have to do with people with developmental disabilities? Many of them end up in the prison system, although not nearly as many as those who are mentally ill. While the deinstitutionalization of people with developmental disabilities in Michigan is celebrated by influential advocacy organizations, none of these advocates that I know of have voiced concern for the "at least" ten people who died when the last state-run institution, Mount Pleasant Center, closed in 2009. Nor do they mention the number of people with developmental disabilities who end up in psychiatric facilities  or nursing homes when those specialized institutions close. There is also a reluctance to  acknowledge problems with inadequate care and isolation in community settings. Instead we hear support for eliminating specialized services in group settings for people with developmental disabilities in the name of freedom and inclusion. This is supported by organizations like the ARC Michigan and the Michigan Council on Developmental  Disabilities.

Rather than despair, Lois DeMott, Kevin's mother, cofounded Citizens for Prison Reform last year. This is from the MCPR blog:

 "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."


Anonymous said...

Inmates like Kevin should not be placed in prisons. But the correctional officers are NOT to be held responsible at all in any way. When he was bashing his head against the wall they did the right thing to contain him down. What if they hadn't? This would be an article on how the officers should have contained him. As for the solitary confinement, people like Kevin are a danger to others & shouldn't be roomed w/ other inmates. If he has no problem hurting himself, he is undoubtedly capable of hurting a fellow inmate, or more importantly, one of our officers. People want to complain about those officers who protect us, try to put yourself in their shoes. I can assure you that babysitting the scum of our state is not a popular job.

Jill Barker said...

I agree that correctional officers cannot be held responsible for actions that the state has taken that make their jobs more difficult. Blame for the closing of psychiatric hospitals, the lack of treatment for mental illness in prison, and the failure to follow Department of Corrections policy that "prisoners with a mental disability ordinarily should not be housed in segregation if the disability may preclude adequate adjustment" falls clearly on the state and the legislature. But surely there is something wrong when people involved in the prison system feel that they are babysitting "the scum of the state", especially when 20% of those people suffer from severe mental illness.