Mentally ill inmates at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional facility were starved, denied water, hog-tied while naked for hours, tased and left to lie in their own feces, according to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
One inmate reported that she pleaded with a guard to help a mentally ill prisoner who, while naked, had her hands and feet cuffed together behind her back. The guard reportedly said that the prisoner would remain in that position for at least two hours because she hadn't yet learned how to "behave."
The ACLU also objected to the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners, after learning that an average of 44 prisoners with either serious mental illness or developmental disorders were being held in solitary cells.
The violations described in the letter are grotesque even as a set of isolated incidents. Unfortunately, prisons across the country have come up short regarding the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
These allegations represent extreme treatment of mentally ill individuals placed in solitary confinement. But even solitary confinement itself, in which inmates are frequently held in a windowless cell alone for 23 hours a day, is a drastic and traumatic treatment that has been called a “living death” and has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment when applied to mentally ill individuals by several courts and the Justice Department. One federal judge described placing individuals with mental illness in confinement as the “mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.” And the Mental Health Association of Michigan said the treatment “punishes people for having a brain disorder, and then exacerbates their conditions by creating an environment that is totally inconsistent with effective therapy.”
Mentally ill inmates are vulnerable to particular abuse throughout the criminal justice system, as prisons increasingly become de facto asylums. Prison discipline frequently punishes inmates with mental illness for behavior that is typical of their disorder, which can have the adverse impact of making their condition worse.
According to the National Association of Mental Illness, up to 40 percent of all Americans with mental illness will go through the criminal justice system, and most will be charged with nonviolent crimes, with treatment being the best way to reduce recidivism. Still, the prison system remains starved of resources, with many outsourcing healthcare to private distributors known for negligence and corruption.