Thursday, December 03, 2009

Are They Animals?

Here's a story about a supermax facility in Illinois. Apparently efforts are being made to improve mental health services to these control unit inmates, some of whom have been in
solitary confinement for up to ten years.

They're getting a lot of service: group and individual counselling, psychiatric treatment and recreational activities. And they've had some serious behavior problems---109 of the 247 inmates are there because they committed new criminal offenses while in prison, including
stabbing correctional officers and murder.

To me the story isn't interesting because of the mental health care issues or because of the nature of the inmates----that's pretty much old stuff to me. What I always think is fascinating are the comments left by the readers. Some people think the inmates are so mentally ill
that they shouldn't be locked up in spite of their repeated violent offenses. Others call them "animals" or worse, and want them all to be killed. Stories like this reveal more about the readers, and about society in general, than about the patients I treat or the system I
work in. As long as there is this level of hysteria and extremism we as a society have trouble addressing the needs of our offenders realistically.


Lockup Doc said...

Clink- I couldn't agree more with what you just said. Talking about seg units seems to elicit as much emotion as talking about abortion.

While there certainly are some seriously ill inmates who probably shouldn't be in secure housing units or segregation, most are not nearly as mentally ill as they want everyone to believe they are.

I also believe the general public has no idea how different modern seg units are from what was truly "the hole" of many decades ago. I know of a secure housing unit where inmates get tv's after the first few weeks and also play chess with each other by shouting out coordinates to each other through the vent system. They get regular meals and an hour of outside rec time each day. They are definitely not segregated from others in the literal sense of the word.

Lockup Doc said...

Sorry-I replied before I read the article and following comments you linked to. Looks like inmates play chess in seg there, too!

I do have one other comment to add after reading the news article and comments. I do not know what the answer is to those (usually very violent) inmates who end up in long-term segregation. I've worked with inmates who have been in seg for up 12 years. I honestly don't think such long-term segregation improves their behavior or "rehabilitates" them in any way. However, from the standpoint of a prison and "justice," how should a prison handle inmates who are already doing life for homicide when those inmates kill security staff or other inmates? Especially in states with no death penalty, there is basically no punishment or consequences for having murdered (again). Sure, they can be sentenced to another lifetime in prison, but none of it matters. So, such inmates often spend years in "segregation," playing chess, exchanging notes and contraband ("fishing") with other inmates,and continuing to be disruptive and assualtive to staff. I don't have the answer. It's a tough situation. Any thoughts on how prisons could handle these situations?

Anonymous said...

I worked as a psychotherapist and then clinical supervisor in the psych hospital serving the New Mexico state prison system; it is a 104-bed site with inmates housed at varied degrees of security from medium (one-man cells in open pods, able to go to other parts of the facility for gym call/etc., access to a library and rec yard) to lockdown (23 hrs./day in cell, 1 hr. of rec in a dog-run style cage, no movement outside cell without full restraints.)

One of the things that gets me about the issues of seg units, prison in general, and mental illness in offenders, is the eagerness of people with no experience or training in any of the above subjects to pontificate about them, always with simplistic solutions to complex problems, usually solutions that don't see the inmates as members of the same species as the person talking.

It is a dilemma in a lot of cases. We had guys who truly were just too dangerous to be allowed access to other people, and who had proven that time and again; we knew that keeping them isolated was contributing to their deteriorating even further, but had no workable alternative. There were also some that we felt we had to keep in seg not because they would necessarily kill someone if they were in GP, but because they were too good at organizing predatory activity by others.

Of all the services we provided, I think the two that had the most rehabilitative value were the psychiatric services for the guys with profound thought or mood disorders and the occupational therapy/skills shop. We had a gentleman running that who was retired military, ran a very tight ship in terms of keeping things neat and organized and keeping very close track of tools as well as closely monitoring everything the inmates did while in his shop; he was gruff and blunt but sincerely dedicated to helping the guys he worked with, and they knew that and responded. He made it possible for inmates to have salable job skills upon parole that they hadn't come in with.

We had some good recreational techs, specially trained COs, too. On the down side, we had some security staff who were, I think, more antisocial than a lot of the inmates and seemed dedicated to dehabilitation, if there is such a term.

Don't know what the solution is, but it ain't what we're doing now.
Jim Finley, MA
Albuquerque, NM

ClinkShrink said...

Lockup: I think by the time you've earned your way into longterm segregation for years, particularly for killing within the system, then the goal of incarceration is no longer rehabilitation. I have no qualms about keeping folks like that isolated indefinitely. It's interesting you added the qualification of states that don't have the death penalty; here in Maryland (where we do have the death penalty) to my knowledge it has never been sought in cases where a convicted murderer kills again in prison.

Anon/Jim: I share your frustration regarding the naive pontificators. I'm glad to see you and Lockup Doc contributing your comments so the general public has a broader understanding of what the issues are. Some of these inmates behave and think in ways that people can't imagine.

Sarebear said...

Very educating comments; thank you.

Dr Steve said...

A reader made this point re your article, 'What is a criminal?': "sociopathic behaviour seems to exist on the autistic spectrum which demonstrates the same inability to empathically relate, socially interpret and think in the abstract."

The problem here, in my view, is that the word 'empathy' has been used in an unhelpful way with regards psychopaths. If we take empathy to be the ability to tell what another is feeling (but not necesarily care - let's call that 'sympathy', or 'pity', or compassion') then the psychopath IS empathic! That's how and why the psychopath tortures - he knows that he is causing pain and terror, does so pitilessly and joyfully.

The autisitc, on the other hand, doesn't know what the other is experiencing. The autistic cannot be interpersonally malevolent because s/he has no access to the mind of another.

It's always been curious to me that definitions of psychopathy always name lack of empathy as a key feature, and inevitably also speculate that there are successful psychopaths in churches, business, etc. Clearly such people have an exquisite ability to read and manipulate others. There is no way an autistic could do that.

Alison Cummins said...

Ouch! Autistics even worse than psychopaths!

Um, no. That’s a horrible thing to say. And I am going to commit copyright infringement in a couple of hours when I get out Tyler Cowen’s book “Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World” about the place of the strenghts of an autistic cognitive style in today’s world, and copy out a couple of paragraphs.