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Our jails may be using violent tactics on mentally ill people

On Behalf of | Feb 10, 2023 | Constitutional Rights, Offenses Committed By Governments

When someone with a serious mental illness is admitted to a county jail, it may be because their mental illness made them unable to comply with the law. It is often the case that they can’t understand or comply with the correctional officers’ orders. When they disobey for that reason, correctional officers often use force to compel their compliance. That use of force only makes the situation worse.

That is the conclusion of an investigation by NPR, WITF and Kaiser Health News into how mentally ill people are treated in county jails. Although the investigation involved only Pennsylvania, there is reason to believe the same thing is happening in New Mexico and around the country.

One of the main findings of the investigation is that jails are not equipped to handle people with mental illnesses. Jail personnel are often untrained on the symptoms of common mental illnesses. Even medical personnel at the jail may have little training.

Nevertheless, jail is a place police take people with psychiatric symptoms. There are few alternatives. Crisis mental health programs are scarce and underfunded. What that means is that, in Pennsylvania and probably most places, 50% or more of the county jail population is made up of people with serious mental illnesses.

Once in jail, they face pepper spray, stun guns and solitary confinement

According to corrections experts interviewed by the reporters, most people with mental illnesses in the system are not violent towards others. Based on a review of use-of-force incident reports, a prisoner assaulted someone else only 10% of the time. In another 10%, the person threatened a staff member. 20% of the time, force was used because the person was threatening or attempting self-harm.

In fact, almost a third of all use-of-force incidents in the study involved a prisoner having a mental health crisis or with a known mental illness.

When people have mental health crises in jail, they often face pepper spray, electroshock devices, and restraint chairs until they calm down enough to cooperate. Then, they may be put in solitary confinement, either to punish the disobedience or to protect them from other prisoners.

This is devastating to people with mental illnesses. A United Nations expert on torture has said that solitary confinement amounts to torture when used on juveniles or people with mental disabilities. He urged all countries to ban its use except in very rare circumstances, and then for as short a time as possible.

Legal cases are moving forward to show that using force on people in mental health crisis is a violation of their constitutional rights. Have you or a loved on experienced this?