Friday, August 25, 2023

By Josh McGhee

Happy Friday MindSiters,

It’s the first week of school here in Chicago and I, for one, am glad to have the home office back to myself. News of extreme weather conditions have dominated the week – from flooding in Southern California, where I was told that this time of year “it doesn’t rain,” to the record-breaking temperatures here in the midwest.

While many of us can avoid the impact of climate change from the respite of our air-conditioned homes, it’s completely impossible for prisoners sweltering in 113 degree heat in windowless cells to ignore that new reality, as we recently examined in this story from our friends at The Appeal.

This month, we’ll go deep on another new normal for prisoners across the country – continuous lockdowns. New York Times Local Investigations Fellow Mario Koran drops by Diagnosis: Injustice to tell us what he learned from speaking with inmates at Waupun Correctional Institute in Wisconsin about never-ending lockdowns. 

We also sat down with Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and researcher who has spent decades probing the psychological impact of incarceration and lockdowns – and who also has some suggestions that at least a couple of states are implementing. 

Let’s get into it…

No Visits, No Doctors, No Fresh Air: The Wrenching Impact of Endless Lockdown

Mario Koran

This week, Mario Koran, a  local investigations fellow for the New York Times and reporter at the investigative nonprofit Wisconsin Watch, released the first story in a long-term investigation on conditions for people incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons. Although his reporting project will take months, he felt the need to get an initial story out more quickly.

“As I began speaking with those locked up in Wisconsin prisons, it became immediately clear that their treatment needed more urgent attention,” Koran told MindSite News in an email. His story details how lockdowns went from a rarely used practice designed for a crisis to an everyday occurrence since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Inmates locked up at Waupun Correctional Institution remain under an indefinite lockdown. More than two dozen inmates described how for nearly five months they’ve been confined to their cells 24 hours a day, been allowed little, if any, fresh air or exercise and have been denied access to the law library. Even family visits have been halted,” Koran told us. “Many said they’ve lived with pain while prison officials denied their requests to see doctors, dentists and mental health staff.”

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections didn’t explain specifically what led to the lockdown  “saying only that it was prompted by inmates’ threats and ‘assaultive behavior,’” Koran said. “But in interviews, former wardens, correctional officers and lawmakers suggested another reason: dire staffing shortages.” 

Koran focused his piece on the 1,000 people who’ve been confined to their cells for more than four months at Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in southeast Wisconsin. But his reporting suggests “lockdowns” are happening in prisons and jails across the country, including in Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

“Unable to staff their prisons, wardens across the country are increasingly turning to lockdowns to make institutions easier to manage,” Koran said.

Read the full story at the New York Times or here at Wisconsin Watch

Dr. Terry Kupers on the Effect of Lockdowns:
“Everyone reports high anxiety and panic. ‘I don’t know what’s going on in my mind. I’m getting paranoid. I can’t figure things out.’

To better understand the long-term effects of these lockdowns and what can be done about them, MindSite News spoke with Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist with decades of experience researching mental health conditions in prisons and jails. 

He’s the author of five books including Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It. He’s also served as an expert witness in litigation concerning mental health services inside correctional facilities.

Dr. Terry Kupers

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Josh McGhee: What are the psychological effects of constant lockdowns?

Terry Kupers: I consider lockdowns the same as solitary and in some ways a little worse. When they do a lockdown, basically it’s a normal prison unit or block and they just lock everybody in their cell. 

Everyone, including relatively stable people, report high anxiety and panic. It’s just an automatic part of being in solitary confinement. There are thinking distortions including paranoia. People say ‘I don’t know what’s going on in my mind. I’m getting paranoid. I can’t figure things out.’ Then there’s concentration and memory problems. There’s compulsive activities like pacing, cleaning the cell, counting blocks, etc. There’s despair.

Mounting anger is a common symptom of solitary confinement. What guys tell me is ‘I can’t figure it out. I’m getting angrier and angrier. No one has done anything in particular to piss me off. Well, the guards are interacting with these people. And the prisoner is deprived of all forms of self-expression.

A bunch of them who are not the most stable throw urine and feces. These guards come in and say ‘No you can’t do that and we’re going to come in and beat you up.’ Then the guards beat him up. It’s not good for the guards. It’s traumatic. The guards are essentially the same population as the prisoners in terms of educational level, socio-economic level, and where they came from.

Are any of these issues exasperated by the extreme weather?

Yes. The noxious conditions are additive. It makes everything I said worse. With the heat, just like us out here, you get irritable, you’re not patient, you’re tired. And it’s worse in solitary because you don’t have the usual ways to take care of yourself.

You’ve been investigating prisons and jails for decades. What has gotten better and what has gotten worse about these conditions?

The problem is that both ends of the spectrum are happening at full force. In some states like Indiana, things are just horrible with solitary confinement. In other states, like North Dakota, which is a very conservative state, they are interested in the Norwegian system of corrections.

Their prisons are organized around rehabilitation. There’s no such thing as a prison guard. People who work there are trained in custody – that’s the ‘guard’ part – education, and psychology because they think that every staff member needs all three in order to help the people who come to prison. They view prison as a failure of society, mostly of education systems and vocational training. What they want to do is give a very intense rehabilitation experience. 

Oregon instituted a bunch of changes. North Dakota went full blast. They said ‘We’re doing what Norway is doing.’ They reduced solitary by a huge amount. They did things like give prison jobs to people who are recently out of solitary to mentor the people who are still in solitary about how to get out of there or how to survive. They have rehab programs right and left. One of the main critical things is finding the right program for the right people.

Getting back to the full prison lockdowns, what are likely to be the long-term effects if they continue at this pace?

One of the things I learned 30 years ago in California is that a lockdown leads to a high violence rate in the immediate aftermath of ending the lockdown because of “cage rage.” Guys are in their cells for 24 hours a day. They’re irritable. They’re losing their minds. They’re yelling at each other. They’re insulting each other. ‘When I get out of here, I’m going to kick your ass’ or they say worse, and that’s what they do.

There’s a lot of violence immediately after they end a lockdown, and this is consistent around the country. It’s a widespread phenomenon.

How do these lockdowns affect the guards and other staff at the prison?

Basically, they’re the same as the prisoners. They go into these places for eight hours a day. They’re in a little box — a pod, a little bigger than my living room and it’s got 30 cells. It’s just a very tiny space.

The guards go home and they have a high rate of alcoholism, a high rate of domestic violence, and a high rate of suicide. It’s not a good situation for anybody.

Are there places where they’re focusing on hiring mental health workers and social workers, instead of corrections officers?

Colorado, Oregon, Washington. California is at both ends. California is horrible about solitary confinement, but they also put money into creative mental health programs. Maine was the first state to prohibit putting people with mental illness in solitary confinement.

What kind of solutions actually exist?

It’s very easy to set up alternatives to solitary, but they cost money upfront. For instance, the average treatment of someone with schizophrenia in prisons is medications and very little talking to a therapist of any kind. In my opinion, and I know this works, if you actually had the person talk to someone who knows how to treat schizophrenia, you reduce the medication, and get the person working in constructive rehab programs like woodwork or some interesting pursuit, they do much better with their schizophrenia.

That’s going to cost a little money upfront, but it doesn’t cost as much over time as it costs to build a supermax prison, nor to fight off all the lawsuits that come in saying what you’re doing is unconstitutional. So it’s actually a money-saving thing, but the legislature has to fund positive programs to get people out of solitary. There’s no way around it.

New Jersey Expands Involuntary Commitment and Advocates Raise Alarm

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law allowing hospitals to hold patients longer under its involuntary commitment statute. Nearly 50 statewide and national mental health advocacy agencies voiced their objections.

The change will allow hospitals to apply for a court order allowing them to hold a patient for an additional 72 hours – or 6 days total – if the facility can’t find short-term care or a psychiatric facility with available beds within the first three days. Previously, hospitals were allowed 72 hours to hold those in need of emergency mental treatment. The new amendments also require patient evaluations at least once every 24 hours during the extra 72 hours, conducted by a psychiatrist who considers several factors to decide whether they should hold the person. 

“Hospitals are having a hard time finding placement for people who are at risk, who are a danger to themselves or others,” Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told North Jersey Media Group. “It’s everyone’s benefit, including the person who’s in the hospital, to stay in the facility another day or two. They shouldn’t just be let out onto the street after several hours in a hospital.”

In July, advocates expressed their disapproval in an open letter to the governor saying emergency rooms are ill equipped for mental health care and the longer stays could result in more trauma for patients. The challenges to finding a bed within the time period go beyond hold time or bed capacity, including the need to find out if the person is insured, has a criminal record, or has housing, the letter said.

“We believe that the bill infringes on the rights of individuals with mental health disabilities but was passed quickly without a review of whether it was needed,” Mary Ciccone, the director of policy for Disability Rights New Jersey, one of the groups that signed the letter, told the outlet.

The letter also raises concerns about racial disparities, noting studies have found people of color are more likely to be involuntarily committed.

Until next month,

Josh McGhee

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Staff reporter Josh McGhee covers the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He previously reported for Injustice Watch, the Chicago Reporter,...