By JOSHUA BENDER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Many Michigan prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses or developmental disabilities spend their days in isolated 23-hour lockdown.
That might be harmful to their mental health, according to a recent national study published in the American Journal of Public Health. It found that prisoners spending time in what is also called segregated housing are nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves.
Some Department of Corrections officials say they don’t believe that’s the case inside Michigan’s prisons.
A daily average of 35 seriously mentally ill or developmentally disabled inmates spent time in solitary confinement for 2013-14, Michigan prison officials said. These inmates spent 12,755 days in solitary confinement that year in the most recently available Department of Corrections statistics.
“Most people just jump to the conclusion that there is a correlation,” said Chris Gautz, the public information officer for the department. “To my knowledge, I have never seen a peer-reviewed study that conclusively found a correlation between going to segregated housing and becoming mentally ill.”
Mental illness is surprisingly prevalent inside Michigan’s prison walls. Twenty percent of all prisoners have been diagnosed as mentally ill, 9 percent of them seriously, Gautz said.
The rate of serious mental illness among prisoners in solitary confinement is actually lower than the prison average, he said.
“Of those in segregated housing, 3.5 percent have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness,” Gautz said. “Mentally ill prisoners made up 17 percent of the segregated housing population.”
Among those deemed seriously mentally are prisoners suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder.
These numbers may reflect mental illness diagnostic policies, some prisoner rights advocates say.
If someone has not been officially diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder but is still seriously mentally ill, he or she can still be placed in administrative segregation, causing serious distress, said Peter Martel, an associate with the American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Program.
“It’s tough out in the world to make sure diagnoses are accurate, and in prison where psychologists are just booked to the gills, I’d imagine it’s even more difficult,” he said.
Prisoners struggling with thoughts of suicide or harming themselves may also fear the segregated housing-based repercussions they may face for voicing their concerns to prison staff, according to some prisoner rights advocates.
“If you’re a prisoner, you know if you tell staff you’re suicidal you will be put on suicide watch, which is a punitive measure regardless of intent,” Martel said. “You are in a stripped cell with no way to write in a journal or read books.”
Some prison officials say the reasoning behind these methods is grounded in a desire to protect inmates and staff.
“We have reasoning at that point to protect their health and well-being. We make sure they do not have access to items they could use to harm themselves because our priority is they do not take their life,” Holly Kramer, communications representative for the Department of Corrections, said.
But Martell said some prison officials are more interested in bending prisoners’ will than ensuring their mental well-being,
“I recall the case of a prisoner who was on suicide watch for two months and wasn’t allowed to see his attorney for an upcoming appeal hearing because the prison administration wanted to teach him that he couldn’t force their hand and get transferred to another facility,” Martell said.
Many prisoners display symptoms of mental distress but some prison officials say they are feigning symptoms so they will be taken out of segregated housingf, Martell said.
“Prisoners will destroy the toilets or showerheads in their cell to flood the cell block, yell and make loud noise for hours, and throw feces at staff and other prisoners,” Martell said. “(Some prison officials think) that going to the hospital with your intestines hanging out or from swallowing pens and batteries is like a vacation.
“I have to ask, wouldn’t that self-destructive behavior indicate there is something seriously wrong with someone?” Martell said.
To improvestaff’s ability to judge potentially dangerous behavior, prison officials say staff participate in training programs.
These include mentorship programs pairing new hires with more experienced staff, as well as a new program to teach cstaff how prisoners’ past experiences can influence their present behavior, Kramer said.
By JOSHUA BENDER