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Isolation of mentally ill inmates criticized

Chicago Tribune, September 30, 2002

Illinois' increased use of solitary confinement to discipline disruptive inmates is under fire from civil rights lawyers who say the cells are being used to warehouse seriously mentally ill prisoners.

Although isolating more inmates has reduced prison assaults, critics contend that the 8-by-10-foot rooms, where prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day, are torture for the seriously mentally ill.
They say some of the inmates deteriorate dramatically in isolation, attempting to kill or mutilate themselves.

On Tuesday, lawyers challenging conditions at Illinois' super-maximum- security prison are set to face a crucial legal hurdle. They hope to convince a judge that 50 or more vulnerable mentally ill inmates have
been at Tamms Correctional Center, in the far southern part of the state, enough to boost their lawsuit to class-action status.

If U.S. District Judge David Herndon agrees, after reviewing more than 100 boxes of prisoner medical records, the attorneys will have more power to seek systemwide changes in how Illinois treats its mentally ill inmates.

Already, court monitors are evaluating the way Wisconsin's and Ohio's "super-max" prisons handle mentally ill inmates. Those states agreed to accept monitors this year after federal judges found that seriously mentally ill inmates did not belong in solitary.

The cases are good news for prison reformers who sued Illinois in 1999, said Jean Snyder, lawyer for the Tamms inmates.

"Tamms is important because it is so bad," said Snyder, who is also an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago. "But the reality is, in Illinois, there are several other prisons where the conditions are beyond what should be legal."

Another prison drawing scrutiny is Pontiac Correctional Center, converted 4 years ago into a special disciplinary facility where about 1,300 problem inmates live in solitary confinement. Earlier this month, 2
inmates there, both with histories of mental illness, deplored the conditions so much that they sued to be allowed to starve themselves to death.

A prison reform group based in Chicago is studying how mentally ill inmates are treated at Pontiac. Charles Fasano, director of the John Howard Association for Prison Reform, said the group toured the prison several weeks ago and plans to return in a few months with more specific questions. It expects to use the information to draft a report to corrections officials or the General Assembly about the prison's new mental health unit, which averaged 81 inmates last year.

"We just saw a lot of guys in there who were just disoriented," Fasano said. "Now we're trying to get a handle on what . . . that program is accomplishing."

From 1994 to 2001, the number of prisoners held in segregation more than doubled, from 1,214 to 2,690.

`Super-max' conditions

At Tamms, all inmates face solitary confinement to some degree. About 2/3 of the 263 inmates, among them gang leaders, are confined there to stop them from coordinating illegal activities in other Illinois prisons, said Warden George Welborn. The remaining 1/3 are inmates who repeatedly have broken rules in other prisons. Those inmates are kept in the toughest segregation.

They spend 23 hours a day in a tiny cell, behind a steel door with small perforations to allow conversation with guards. They can stand on their bed to look out a 1 1/2-foot-wide window and, with proper behavior, are allowed a combination of 25 books and magazines. They leave to view legal material and for exercise, which takes place alone in a slightly larger room.

That's tough punishment for any inmate, but beyond the pale for a person who, for example, has schizophrenia, which can include symptoms such as hearing voices and bizarre thoughts of persecution, said Jamie Fellner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York. "It's not just inadequate treatment, it's putting them in an environment that's absolutely toxic," Fellner said. It "leaves them locked with their demons."

The inmates' lawyers contend that Tamms staff members consistently dismiss and underdiagnose psychological problems. They point to Ashoor Rasho, 27, a burglar who was transferred to Tamms in 1998 after committing several assaults in prison.

Rasho, 1 of the 3 inmates who filed suit, has a history of paranoia and hearing voices, attorneys say. At Tamms, he began to cut his arms, wrists and abdomen, and on one occasion in August 1998, "began eating small pieces of his own flesh in front of a correctional officer." Tamms staff members said Rasho was simply trying to manipulate them and dismissed his behavior, the suit said.

State Department of Corrections officials would not comment specifically about the inmates named in the case, spokesman Sergio Molina said. But they bristle at the notion that seriously mentally ill inmates are ignored while their symptoms get worse.

Guards at Tamms are trained to report all disturbances, and 7 full-time mental health workers are on staff, often walking past the inmates' cells, said Welborn, the warden.

"To say that an inmate at Tamms who wants to talk to a mental health staff member can't . . . is ridiculous," he said.

Inmates can talk to inmates in nearby cells and do so more easily at Tamms than in segregation cells at the state's larger, louder prisons, Welborn said. Prison officials say the state has built special psychiatric units at Tamms and Pontiac.

The Richard Speck tape

The decision to build more solitary confinement cells was triggered by the prison crisis of the mid-1990s. A huge influx of street gang members, serving longer terms for drug-related crimes, strained the system.

The well-organized gangs exploited lax policies to smuggle drugs and weapons into even the maximum-security prisons. Pontiac held outdoor "picnics" where inmates mingled with visitors and where guards suspected contraband was passed.

For the state's politicians, the final straw came in 1996 when a TV station obtained a videotape of mass murderer Richard Speck, taken in 1988 at Stateville Correctional Center. The video showed Speck having sex with another inmate, snorting what appeared to be cocaine and boasting about his easy life behind bars.

Legislative hearings followed. So did the reforms that brought about the $73 million Tamms prison in 1998 and the segregation cells at Pontiac.

Segregation has vastly improved inmate behavior, prison officials say.
The number of times guards were assaulted by inmates with weapons dropped from 611 in 1996 to 16 in 2001. In the same period, the number of times officials had to lock down the prisons, restricting all inmates to their cells, fell from 1,123 days to 608.

The new solitary confinement also gave prison officials a place to put gang leaders who orchestrated prison problems and repeatedly disruptive inmates, who attack guards or damage property and refuse to learn from other punishment. Together, those prisoners constituted "the worst of the worst," as officials often say.

"Inmates don't want to come to Tamms," Welborn said. "They have an incentive to behave themselves at other facilities. In a nutshell, that's what Tamms is all about."

But critics of solitary confinement say repeat rule-breakers also include many who simply are "the sickest of the sick"--inmates too divorced from reality to follow prison rules.

"They can be disturbed and disruptive, and that's a formula for getting into a super-max," Fellner said. "If you're paranoid and a guard comes at you, and you lunge at him, you're not thinking: `Oh, if I do this, I might end up at Tamms.'



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