Tenn.  Inmate mutilation highlights mental health issues in prison

Tenn. Inmate mutilation highlights mental health issues in prison

By TRAVIS LOLLER, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Jon Hall, fellow Tennessee death row inmate Henry Hodges, warned long ago that he was in danger due to gross negligence by prison authorities, after having spent three decades in solitary confinement with very little human contact or interaction.

In a federal lawsuit Hall filed in 2019, complaining that he, too, had been in solitary confinement for nearly six years with no viable way to leave, he said of Hodges: I saw in the hallway of the dead. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill himself.

The warning went unheeded, and last month Hodges cut off his penis during what his lawyer called a “psychiatric disturbance”.

Hodges’ self-harm was an extreme but not unprecedented incident in US penitentiaries: Texas inmate Andre Thomas gouged out one of his eyes five days after his 2004 arrest for the murder of his wife and children, and while on death row in 2009, he removed his remaining eye and told prison officials he ate it.

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Although most of the cases do not fit these grisly examples, they do underscore the significant, growing and unmet needs of prisoners for mental health care.

A study released last year by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics that compiled data from 2016 found that 41% of federal and state prisoners reported a history of mental illness and 13% had experienced distress. serious psychological illness in the previous 30 days. Of the latter group, only 41% of state inmates said they were currently receiving mental health treatment. The treatment rate for federal inmates was even lower, at just 26%.

“Our prisons are not designed to provide mental health care, and they don’t do it very well,” said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the effects of solitary confinement for decades.

Without sufficient resources to care for mentally ill inmates, the sickest are sometimes treated with punitive measures, such as solitary confinement, which only exacerbate the problem.

In Tennessee, Hall’s trial highlighted the vicious cycle he faced.

“To come out of solitary confinement, he must be in good psychological health, but the conditions of his solitary confinement cause him psychological damage, and the lack of psychological treatment means that he cannot recover enough to come out of solitary confinement” , Hall’s attorneys wrote.

The Tennessee Department of Correction’s annual report shows that the number of inmates classified as having “serious and persistent mental illness” has risen from about 5% of the population in 2002 to nearly 23% by 2022. Nearly 19% of more are listed as having other mental illnesses.

Questions abound about whether the state is doing enough to deal with the crisis.

Centurion of Tennessee, which won a five-year, $123 million contract in 2020 to administer mental health services for state-run prisons, has been accused by rival Corizon of colluding with prison officials to rig the ‘offer. A lawsuit was settled out of court, and the Department of Correction said in May 2021 that it would renew the contract. Last week, none had been awarded.

Meanwhile, a state comptroller audit in January 2020 found that Centurion – which has run medical services since 2013 – and Corizon were unable to consistently meet contracted staffing levels. The audit also revealed issues with medical documentation.

“We were unable to locate the mental health assessments of all inmates with documented mental health issues in our sample; medical staff did not always include doctors’ prescriptions in patient records; we were unable to locate mental health treatment plans for all inmates with documented mental health issues in our sample,” the audit read.

The Correctional Service blamed record keeping problems on a cumbersome paper file system. The ministry called the transition to electronic health records a “top priority” in 2020, but last week said it was still developing a request for proposals and did not say when it would be. will come out.

The department said vacancies did not affect inmate care, as shifts were usually filled by other staff.

Haney, the psychology professor, said it probably wouldn’t matter to Hodges if Tennessee prisons had the best mental health care in the world as long as he remained in custody. It’s well established that even short periods of solitary confinement are detrimental to a person’s mental health, he said.

“What is a therapist going to be able to do if, after an hour, you are put back in an empty cell where you will stay 23 hours a day? he said.

When inmates are isolated for weeks, they can become “disconnected from reality and do things that are inexplicable in any other setting,” Haney continued. “As human beings, we depend on relationships and contact with other people. When you take that away, it becomes very unsettling.

Hodges was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of a telephone repairman and immediately put in solitary confinement. Before mutilating himself on October 7, his behavior worsened for several days. Hodges went from smearing feces on his cell wall to slashing one of his wrists with a razor, court documents show. When he was taken to the infirmary, he asked to be watched. But a few hours later he was back in a cell where he again used a razor, this time to cut off his penis.

After being released from the hospital, Hodges was returned to the infirmary. There he was kept naked and restrained by his arms and legs on a thin mattress on a concrete slab in a room lit 24 hours a day, without mental stimulation such as a radio or television, his lawyer said. in a lawsuit filed in October. 28. She likened his treatment to torture and said it violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

State attorneys defended Hodges’ treatment in a hearing the same day, with Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland arguing that he was receiving “24-hour care.”

Nashville Chancellor I’Ashea Myles ordered the corrections department to provide better care, including providing Hodges with clothing and mental stimuli.

Hodges’ attorney is trying to get him transferred to the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute. A preliminary injunction hearing in his case is scheduled for November 28.

Meanwhile, his fellow inmates continue to worry. Hall filed a grievance on his behalf on October 13 asking that Hodges receive special relief from prolonged solitary confinement. “After thirty years of solitary confinement by sensory deprivation, you have robbed this man of his sanity,” Hall wrote.

The grievance was dismissed as improper, with the unit director writing that Hall was not an official inmate advocate.

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