Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Prison Reform, Mental Health, and Torture (5.22.09)

Have we become a barbaric nation?  Where the mentally ill are left to languish in prisons because we don't provide the treatment they deserve?  Where prisoners are put in solitary confinement, which leads to mental illness, because housing prisoners that way is effective? Is effectiveness now the yardstick for everything?

Have we become a nation where human rights are denied the incarcerated and the mentally ill?  And we just lock them away and pretend they don't exist?

Torture has become a debate topic.  Barbaric treatment is endorsed by some with the excuse that "it works" - without regard for the humanity of those tortured by barbaric means.

All of this is interrelated.  We've outsourced penal systems to private enterprises:  Businesses, that sell shares to investors and likely have lobbyists.  Lobbyists to feed the insatiable super max beasts via longer prison terms and harsher treatment.

Why do we spend so much money housing prisoners and so little treating the mentally ill?

If it's effectiveness we're using as a yardstick, then let's look at the effectiveness of treatment.   Let's look at humane treatment.  For both prisoners and mental illness.  Let's consider humane treatment of those we've imprisoned in Guantanamo, those tortured on our watch and still terrorized by goon squads.   But also shine a light on similar mistreatment of citizens detained right here behind prisons walls.

Can we not realize that humane treatment is for all?  That no matter what crimes people may have committed, it is wrong to endorse ill treatment.  Especially by private corporations, which sell shares to investors and pay lobbyists to urge legislators to write bills demanding longer, harsher sentences.

Torture is wrong.   But so is harsh treatment of criminals and mentally ill people.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Article 10

1. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
3. The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.
Could we please, at the very least, abide by international standards?

Or have we become a barbaric nation?



Senator Webb of Virginia introduced legislation recently addressing this very large problem.
This is wonderful news. Can you tell us more about it?
Webb's plan is really to reform the entire criminal justice system. It's sweeping in its scope:
Webb really impressed me when he came out on this issue - especially being from Virginia (a sort of "hang-em-high" state).
(Very nice segue to a very important topic TheraP!)
I have immense respect for the man. It takes a courageous man to buck a system. And the system has been rigged by the repubs for far too long. Rigged in terms of an aggressive foreign policy and an aggressive policy toward legal offenses - with the exception of themselves, of course.
As you know AI attempted some integration of these subjects. And it was met with a good response.
You have done a straightforward job, demonstrating in simple language the real problems here.
Are we a police state or a democracy? When we hide all these millions away or millions more are hidden under aquaducts or other sections of our cities used by the lost and the poor who are homeless...
WE do not have to think about them.
I still praise MSNBC for their documentaries about prisons aired when their news division shuts down over the weekend.
And I am so happy that an exReaganite, Webb is working on this. I really do like this guy more and more since his magical election in 2006.
Thank you for this. We must keep all these subjects; torture, imprisonment, mental illness on the front page.
You choose to take on the ugliest subjects. Once they get going, we see 100 or more comments and it affects this site. In a most positive manner.
A holiday weekend may not allow this to catch fire. But regardless, it's "out there" and we can refer back to the post. It's thanks to comments by Synchronicity and Don Key yesterday that prompted me to enlarge the theme - beyond torture. Because, if we're going to repudiate torture, then we need to repudiate our "harsh" treatment of citizens. And it seemed to me that the only decent thing is to begin with "humane treatment."
But you're right. Sometimes it helps to lay out a case in very simple language.
If you don't mind I'll go ahead and slap people like David Lichleiter of Eli Lily in the face. Guys like that are the problem.
The issue is that in this day and age the effort is to throw drugs at people and rig the system in order to avoid the consequences.
Passing health care legisation would go a long way towards removing these factions that also are at the core of the prison indsutry.
Of course confining someone to prison makes them irritable, and then look! The states pays for drugs to treat what they created in the first place. But in the meantime the drug companies lobby the states to cover up for all the crap associated with the supposed "treatment" that occurs in the facilities.
Yes prisons are barbaric and thankfully universal coverage will rip the influence away from pharmaceuticals who prefer to have them that way.
You are also pointing at another travesty that belongs on the doorstep of the drug companies. Those who are treated by the military - with drugs - so they can keep fighting, no matter how stressed out they are. I never thought of that till your comment. But you've pointed that out to me, but pointing out how the drug companies benefit from folks being in prison. Private enterprise is doing more to undermine our values than we realize.
Thanks for your assistance. Good thinking!
I appreciate you bringing attenton to this perspective. I am also heartened by Senator Webb's attention to this issue.
There is so much that is not working well in our country including the mental health system.
When I try to step back and look at the things our government, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, our economy, our education system, news media (including the so called entertainment news media), prison systems, judicial systems, etc... I think, man do we need an overhaul just about everywhere.
Obama really did get a 'fixer upper'.
I guess we roll up the sleeves and go at it then...
Reviewing my comment I wanted to clarify that I agree with what you have stated about basic human rights for everyone. As we learned a bit more about in DD's post a few days ago, the prison and detention systems are a whole industry unto themselves. My uncle was a lawyer and then later worked for a prison here in CO for many years and he will not talk about it.
Reading this immediately made me think about what I know of the mental health system and the various forms of abuse there as well. That is what made me step back and go 'wow, we really have a lot of work to do everywhere'.

I like your characterization of it as Obama getting a "fixer-upper" - how true that is.
I would not be in his position for all the money in the world! I may not like every decision he's making. But I sure as heck would not want to be making every decision he has to make either.
Basic human rights for everyone. The torture has brought that home to me. There is no way any human should be subject to torture. If someone is convicted and deserves to spend time time in prison, being deprived of your liberty is punishment enough. Beyond that, people should be encouraged to do something productive with that time. Why make their loss of freedom into a type of degradation?
Somewhere along the way we lost our ideals as a society. I am very troubled by how far we've sunk.
I feel that our weaknesses as human beings have been being exploited. I have written about this before a long time ago... (I wonder if I can find that blog)that we act like an abused nation. If you take us as a whole right now I would say it's as if we've just been robbed, raped, had members of our families killed,beem stripped of many of our rights, and all to fulfill some sick agenda.
that may or may not include committment to religious domination.
So, yes, we are far from our ideals. We are much closer to our 'humanity'. Being 'human' with frailties, instincts, impulses, weaknesses, intelligences, strengths, needs etc. and working to be more perfect is a very 'imperfect' journey.
None of us is perfect.
I see enlightenment as a continually evolving process. Ken Wilber has written about the overall worldview makeup of nations. The Netherlands being overall more evolved. I would like to learn more about how they are managing their systems. Prisons might be a good place to start.
National PTSD. Frankly, it's like we'd been held hostage for 8 long years under those folks! Some of the anger at Obama now is exactly what you'd experience as the therapist of someone with PTSD. Once they can finally express the pent-up anger they express it at the person they'd longed for as a savior. That person isn't a savior, of course. But the longing of the detainee or the hostage is so great, that's what happens. Anger, even at someone trying to help.
Good, good blog. TheraP. The one silver cloud from the financial crisis is that some states are rethinking their draconian policies, like the 3 Strikes policies.

Where prisoners are put in solitary confinement, which leads to mental illness, because housing prisoners that way is effective? Is effectiveness now the yardstick for everything?

One thing. When talking about business, the word used is efficient because it's usually about reigning in costs. When talking about government's delivery of service, the word is effective. We want effective. We run like hell from efficient, because by it's very definition, gov't is usually incapable of being both effectively. :-) Prisoners are housed that way because it's efficient. (Which sucks.)
(PS. Still trying on Team B! My time has been so chopped up, that I haven't been able to, yet.)
Thanks for cluing me in to "efficient" versus "effective" - interesting how it's one expectation for govt and another for business. How right you are!
When I mentioned "effective" I was thinking of their argument "pro torture" - it works. so they say.
Yes, I'm hoping that eventually people will start asking if they really want to pay for so many people housed in jails. They may suddenly see the "effectiveness" of rehabilitation, if it gets people out of jail and out in the economy, renting an apartment and getting furniture for it and buying food and clothing. And contributing to society.
I'd love to design a system for mental health, that incorporated people coming out of jail, not just the mentally ill but the people whose lives have been constricted in so many ways. Who need to reintegrate into society, to take stock of their lives, pick up the pieces, open their horizons. There are so many people housed in prisons who are really capable of making huge strides. I've worked with some, seen them do that.
Take your time on Team B. It's not going anywhere - unfortunately. And if other things are more important, go for them! Just always glad to see you (and the puppy). :-)
I'd love to design a system for mental health, that incorporated people coming out of jail...
Don't quote me on this, but I think Obama was involved in wanting to do this type of thing while he was in the IL state senate. If he can manage to put out the 4000 fires he inherited first, maybe you will get your chance! Seriously.
That is music to my ears. And what you say fits with what he did before as a community organizer. Black men are over-incarcerated. It is a terrible scandal!
Great post. In some ways, I feel we have become and been fairly barbaric. There's a history of brutality and violence, going all the way back to slavery and indian wars. (Now we have Dick "Torqamada" Cheney to add to the disgrace)
Our grim and violent prisons are a disgrace. And putting the mentally ill in prison and on the street is likewise.
I think closing down the mental hospitals in the 1960s was a huge mistake, despite the abuses there. Now we have no facilities for people who are mentallty ill but not criminals. IT's on the street until picked up for some offense, often just loitering and alcohol. And then it's into the dungeon.
Perhaps we need a new kind of facility.

Even worse, many of the rabble consider our brutal prison system to be a good thing -- more punishment and suffering. Thus any pol who would like to reform can get demagogued as "soft on crime".

There's been a loss of compassion. A contempt for people considered "inferior" - it goes back to those straussian principles I wrote about a few days back.
I agree that throughout our history there have been terrible acts of barbarism. Terrible repression of native Americans, of black people, of immigrants with accents. But even during those times at least we espoused our ideals, even while not living up to them. What's happened lately, however, is a sense that the ideals have no value, that money and power and status are what people should value. As if poverty itself were proof of people's inferior status.
I feel at heart contemplating this. But we simply can't keep turning our back on so many people who need our concern.
Thank you so much for caring!
That second last paragraph should have said: "I feel sick at heart...."
"What's happened lately, however, is a sense that the ideals have no value, that money and power and status are what people should value. As if poverty itself were proof of people's inferior status."
I tend to agree. There's a callousness of late. I think it peaked during the Bush years. Having a sneering vulgar bunch of bullies running things really promoted the mean & greed lifestyle. SUVs reigned. Easy money in the housing boom made for a lot of hubris. Perhaps it fits together in the zeitgeist.
One thing about our economic crisis, is it may make us better people. Suffering has that possibility. Fortune apparently doesn't. I wish we were better people.
Great post.

What's happened lately, however, is a sense that the ideals have no value, that money and power and status are what people should value. As if poverty itself were proof of people's inferior status.
They prettied it up to "personal responsibility", but it's exactly as you said. It is very disheartening and I hope things are changing. I often dislike the meanness I see in the US.
The more I think about those straussians, and the sick ideas deliberately inculcated, the more upset I feel. The degree of propaganda, purveyed by people pretending patriotism.... ugh, horrible!
The revolving door between solitary and mental health problems is very disturbing.
It's pretty indisputable that health care in most prisons is slipshod at best. For the mentally ill, this too often means a lack of, or only intermittent access to, the psychotropics that they need. And that leads to behavior problems. And behavior problems lead to solitary, sometimes to transfer to supermax prisons - where inmates never see another living soul, get out of their cells only one hour a day, never even get to turn the light off. Healthy people are decimated there (the psychologist Stuart Grassian - I think that's his name - has done a lot of work on it). But for the inability to get access to a pill or two a day, we're effectively making people mentally ill, punishing them for it, and in doing so, making their condition a lot worse - if they don't find a way to die, which is honestly a pretty rational response to the situation.
Ugh. Thanks for writing this, TheraP!
Yes. You have two issues. The plight of the mentally ill, given the opposite of treatment. And the plight of anyone incarcerated i solitary, which can lead to psychosis all by itself. Depression for sure. But psychosis is also a possibility. PTSD.
All to make things easier - for the guards.
For a recent article on the horrors of solitary confinement, see "Hellhole" by Atul Gawande (New Yorker, 3/30/2009).
One of the surprising opinions voiced in the article is that most prison administrators would agree that long-term solitary confinement is brutal and useless (at best), but continue to use it because of political pressures.
Thanks for the link. Most helpful!
Too many people are cowed by fear - and thus do not do the right thing.
We must stand up for the voiceless - incarcerated in solitary and slowly going nuts.
A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)

The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.
Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”
Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.
John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”
There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!
The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
These new slave plantations are not the answer!
For more information please visit:
To sign the petition please visit:

Thank you for this important information. I will follow up.
Posted by TheraP in reply to a comment from William Thomas

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