View Full Version : Editorial: Oregon State Penitentiary mentally ill inmates need more help

02-22-2005, 09:31 PM
IN MY OPINION Mary Beth Pfeiffer

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Mentally ill inmates need more help

T he suicide last month of an inmate at Oregon State Penitentiary is evidence that the state's only maximum-security prison is a troubled institution. With 18 percent of the state's prison population, the penitentiary has had more than 50 percent of the state prison system's suicides since 1995, a disproportionate share that should be cause for concern.

The latest death brings the suicides at Oregon State Penitentiary to 13 in the last decade, among 25 suicides in the entire prison system. Policy-makers should focus on two areas within the Department of Corrections:

The system's questionable ability to handle a difficult and growing population of mentally ill inmates.

The practice of putting inmates in segregated confinement for 23 hours a day for months at a time.

The suicide Jan. 28 of Aaron Munoz, a 21-year-old inmate who was to be released within days, is being investigated because it theoretically occurred within view of officers on watch. But it should be probed for other reasons.

As with six other suicides at the prison since 1995, Munoz died in 23-hour confinement. The prison's two 23-hour housing units -- disciplinary segregation and intensive management -- account for just 12 percent of the prison's population; counting Munoz, 54 percent of the suicide deaths occurred there since 1995.

"Perhaps no factor has been more tragically associated with jail and prison suicides than the consistent finding of isolated/segregated housing," wrote psychologist Raymond Bonner in 2000 in the journal of the American Association of Suicidology.

The reason that isolation is so harmful should be obvious: Putting anyone into a small room without human contact for prolonged periods is, as pioneering psychiatrist Stuart Grassian put it, "toxic" to mental health. It brings on hallucinations, anxiety attacks and distorted thinking.

According to Corrections Department figures, 68 of the 147 inmates in Oregon State Penitentiary's intensive management unit had a moderate or severe mental illness as of late last year. When prison systems have such high numbers of ill inmates in segregated confinement, it usually means that the system has no other way to handle them.

In Oregon prisons, which house almost 13,000 inmates, there are just 72 beds for inmates in need of intensive mental health care; 360 beds are needed, according to the Governor's Mental Health Task Force report released last October. The state ranks 49th in the nation for the number of such beds, the report concluded.

As in every other state, the ranks of mentally ill inmates in Oregon's prisons have soared. Seriously mentally ill inmates now account for 15 percent of the prison population, including people with such diagnoses as borderline personality disorder, delusional disorder or bipolar disorder. In a 2003 study in New York state prisons, 84 percent of inmates who committed suicide were treated for a mental illness at some point in their incarceration; 26 percent of them suffered from schizophrenia.

Suicide is not the only issue. When Billy Owens died in 2002 after a confrontation with guards at Snake River Correctional Institution, he was in his 70th day in segregated confinement. When he unraveled, refusing medications and defying orders to stop stabbing himself with a pen, officers rushed his cell. Owens, who suffered from schizophrenia, was suffocated in the ensuing struggle -- over which the system was harshly criticized and is now being sued.

With the failure to provide community care after mental hospitals closed, correctional facilities in Oregon and across the nation have become warehouses for the mentally ill. More must be done to keep the sick out of prisons. But if prison is appropriate, people with mental illness mustn't be further punished because of it.

Mary Beth Pfeiffer is a Soros justice media fellow of the Open Society Institute, a private organization founded by George Soros that promotes social, legal and economic reform.