Costly system also inhumane to the mentally ill
By Erika Stutzman
In the state of Colorado, the number of mentally ill or developmentally disabled prison inmates in solitary confinement has more than doubled in about 10 years.
According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, in 1999, 15 percent of inmates in solitary confinement were mentally ill or developmentally disabled. In 2008, it was 37 percent.
Most people`s exposure to solitary confinement is from pop culture: In reality in Colorado it is 23 hours of daily isolation with no human contact. There are about 1,400 people in solitary confinement in Colorado today. They will spend an average of 16 months there, according to the department.
Solitary confinement is more expensive than regular prison — the low end of the increased costs is about $15,000 per inmate. And 41 percent of prisoners released from solitary are really released: They`re put on parole or their time has been served, they head right back into the community, rather than back into general prison population to readjust to human contact.
For the mentally ill, it is an overwhelming prospect.
Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, is sponsoring a bill that would address this issue. The proposal has the support of a coalition that includes state branches of the ACLU, Mental Health America and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
We hope the proposal gets its due: As drafted so far, the law would create a process to evaluate inmates for mental health issues, while still allowing wardens to confine people who are a security risk. It would ensure that those so confined would be put back into the general prison population before their release from prison.
It`s easy to dismiss what goes on inside prison walls if you`ve never been inside them. It`s easy, too, to take a "tough on crime" stance that is absolute in nature. People who seem most opposed to prison reform find some comfort in thinking that once a person is put in prison, they get whatever it is they deserve.
This is clouded thinking, for several reasons. Lawyers, judges and juries work out various convictions and sentences for those who run afoul of the law, even those who do so heinously. Many will be sent to prison, some for the rest of their lives, but most for various lengths of time. But none of those convicted is sentenced to a place of torture; none is sentenced to be raped or otherwise assaulted; none is sentenced to mental abuse.
A civil society is not the worst criminal`s doppelganger. It has a moral obligation to extend its rights and its humanity even to those who have broken the law. And if those individuals have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses or both, they require special care. It`s that simple.
There will still be those who cling to the rather medieval notion that humane treatment is only for law-abiding citizens. But most prisoners will re-enter society at some point. Which convict would you rather join your own community, or that of your children? The one who has been punished morally, and rehabilitated according to the laws that govern us all — or the one who has been punished, punished, punished physically and mentally within an inch of his sanity?
– Erika Stutzman, for
the Camera editorial board