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Treating Humans Worse Than Animals: Prison System Voices Decry Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill

Following the death of two prisoners at New York City’s Rikers Island facility, there is mounting pressure on jails and prisons to reform their use of solitary confinement.

Following the death of two prisoners at New York City’s Rikers Island facility, we look at mounting pressure on jails and prisons to reform their use of solitary confinement. A corrections officer was arrested last week and charged with violating the civil rights of Jason Echevarria, a mentally ill Rikers prisoner who died after eating a packet of detergent given to him when his cell was flooded with sewage. It was the first such arrest in more than a decade. Also last month, Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill homeless veteran, died in a Rikers solitary mental-observation unit where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. An official told the Associated Press that Murdough “baked to death” after temperatures soared in his cell. We hear from Echevarria’s father, Ramon, at a protest seeking justice for his son, and speak to former Rikers prisoner Five Mualimmak, who was held in solitary there. And we are joined by two guests from within the prison system calling for reform: Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who is helping reduce violence in prisons, and Lance Lowry, president of the Texas Correctional Employees, the union which represents Texas prison guards. Lowry is calling on the state to reduce the use of solitary confinement, including on death row. “Zookeepers are not allowed to keep zoo animals in the kind of housing that we put human beings in,” Dr. Gilligan says. “We have created the situation; it is called a self-fulfilling prophecy: We say these are animals, they are going to behave like animals, then we treat them so that they will.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

RENÉE FELTZ: We turn now to look at mounting pressure on jails and prisons to reform their use of solitary confinement. This comes as a corrections officer in New York City was arrested last week by FBI agents and charged with violating the civil rights of a mentally ill prisoner held in solitary confinement at the city’s largest jail, called Rikers Island. It was the first such arrest in more than a decade. The prisoner who died was 25-year-old Jason Echevarria, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In August 2012, he ate a packet of detergent given to him by a guard after his cell was flooded with sewage, and he began vomiting and pleading for medical help. According to evidence filed in the case against him, Captain Terrence Pendergrass repeatedly ignored reports that Echevarria was ill. At one point, he told a subordinate he shouldn’t be bothered unless “there was a dead body.” The next morning, Echevarria was found dead in his cell. According to the medical examiner, the linings of his tongue and throat were burned off by the soap’s chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Echevarria’s supporters recently rallied to call for Pendergrass’s firing. In this report, we hear from Echevarria’s father, Ramon, as he joins members of the Jails Action Coalition. We also hear in detail about the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island from a former prisoner there named Five Mualimmak, who has since been released.

JENNIFER PARISH: My name’s Jennifer Parish. I’m an attorney, and I’m also a member of the Jails Action Coalition. The Jails Action Coalition is here to call attention to the death of Jason Echevarria. He was a young man who was in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. He was in crisis and needed medical attention. And the captain, Terrence Pendergrass, refused to have him moved out of the cell. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office investigated, because it was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office. They didn’t prosecute anyone. The Department of Correction fired the lower-level correction officers. And the captain, who was most responsible, still works at Rikers Island today.

RAMON ECHEVARRIA: Officer Pendergrass, I think he should have been handcuffed in the jail right there and taken to Central Booking, and he should be in jail. Solitary confinement, to me, is a torture box. When you put a person in a SHU, you’re breaking this person’s mental capacity down to zero. He did something bad, fine. But treat him as a human being, not like an animal. He’s got rights in this world.

FIVE MUALIMMAK: My name is Five Mualimmak. I am the executive director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, which is a grassroots movement to support those incarcerated. Oftentimes we let the correctional institutions paint this picture that solitary confinement contains the worst of the worst, like the Hannibal Lecters of the world. But actually, the system itself is the worst of the worst.

I spent 12 years incarcerated; five of that I did in solitary confinement. I did time at Rikers and also MCC. During my time in solitary confinement, I was tortured. We’re talking about sensory deprivation. We’re talking about being away from your loved ones and family members, being away from your children. My son missed me his entire life. When I first went to solitary, it was on Rikers, and there was a fight that broke out in the dorm. And they have a thing called prehearing detention, so basically everybody goes to the box. So, for about a week or so, you’re in this cell for 24 hours a day, isolated, with no property, were not allowed to have any visitors. And we’re talking about city jail now; we’re not talking about people who are convicted of a crime, just people who are too poor to afford their bail.

A friend of the family had sent me a book called Revolutionary Suicide. And that book got me a ticket, because I’m not allowed to have materials in, even though I have no control over who’s sending me materials. I was sent to the solitary for having too many pencils, too many postage stamps. For not getting out of the shower fast enough, I got another ticket. I had a ticket for eating an apple. Apple seeds contain arsenic. So, somehow, eight and 10 makes four for them, you know? And they add that up, and you’re not supposed to eat the core, so I got a ticket for that. So the next day I was so fearful, I didn’t eat the apple at all. I didn’t want to touch it. So I got another ticket for refusing to eat. You end up spending time just wasting away, sleeping under your bed, trying to turn days into weeks. There’s light deprivation. You don’t know when day turns into the next.

And you have a person who is emotionally damaged, mentally damaged, and then they just give you a bus ticket, $40 cash and then send you on a bus, and you’re back in. I went from solitary confinement one day to, next day, 10 million commuters, right at 42nd Street, right off the bus. That reintegration process is like a crash, an attack on your senses. So, I’ve been home a little over two years. Roughly 2,000 people are released right back into society directly from solitary confinement. You come out of incarceration, you’re disenfranchised. You can’t vote. You can’t get low-income housing. You can’t get city housing, not allowed on federal housing. You can’t get social services. You can’t get food stamps. You can’t get Medicaid. These are our citizens returning back to the community.

We’re the financial capital the world, but guess what. New York City is also the torture capital of the world. We actually torture people and use solitary confinement four times over the national average. We have all these prisons and jails. And we need to be an example, as to the rest of the country, to humanely address the issues.

RENÉE FELTZ: That was Five Mualimmak talking about his time as a prisoner held in solitary confinement here in New York. Special thanks to Cassandra Lizaire for that report.

In other developments at Rikers Island, a mentally ill homeless veteran died last March in—last month, I should say, as he was held in a solitary mental-observation unit where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. Jerome Murdough had been arrested for trespassing as he slept in the stairwell of a public housing building, and was kept in jail after he was unable to pay $2,500 in bail. An official told the Associated Press Murdough, quote, “basically baked to death” after temperatures soared in his cell.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Dr. James Gilligan is clinical professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, adjunct professor in the School of Law at New York University. Last year he co-authored a report commissioned by New York City Board of Correction that found the use of prolonged punitive segregation of the mentally ill in the city’s jails violates the Mental Health Minimum Standards. Before that, he served on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he was also director of the Institute of Law and Psychiatry, and directed mental health services for the Massachusetts prisons and prison mental hospital.

And from Houston, Texas, we’re joined by Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME Local 3807 of the Texas Correctional Employees Union, which represents the Texas prison guards. While these unions have sometimes been seen as an obstacle to reforms, in January Lowry wrote an open letter to Texas prison officials that called on them to reduce the use of solitary confinement, including on the state’s death row. He says similar steps should be taken in jails and prisons nationwide. Texas has more than 7,100 prisoners in solitary, including 2,400 who are mentally ill—among the highest in the nation. Meanwhile, a new study by the American Journal of Public Health found New York City jail inmates sent to solitary confinement are nearly seven times more likely to inflict self-harm than those never assigned to it.

Dr. James Gilligan and Lance Lowry, welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Dr. Gilligan, let’s go back to this case. In fact, very interestingly, the corrections officer, Pendergrass, was just indicted. Talk about what happened to this young man in jail, in solitary confinement. What happened with the soap?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Well, what happened was that he was given a highly toxic antiseptic soap ball, which, according to the jail’s own regulations, was not supposed to be given to prisoners the way it was. It was supposed to be diluted in gallons of water, because it was highly toxic given straight. The correction officer clearly was insufficiently trained and insufficiently supervised by the administration of the jails. So he also—the officer was also clearly unaware of the implications of the fact that the inmate was mentally ill. So you have a mentally ill man given a highly toxic substance, who then swallows it, tells the officers that he is in trouble, that he’s in pain and vomiting and sick.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s in that soap?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: It’s an antiseptic, which is extremely toxic. It has to be.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a special prison soap?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Yes, it was being given because the toilets had overflowed.

AMY GOODMAN: And they were in—

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Yeah, they were—the inmates were given the job—

AMY GOODMAN: They flooded with sewage.

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: The inmates were given the job of cleaning up their own cells with this highly toxic substance, which was supposed to be diluted so that it wouldn’t harm them. Instead, it was just given to him outright. And then he was ignored after he swallowed it. And, of course, this would be excruciatingly painful. It literally was burning off the surface of his tongue and his throat and killing him. And he died.

AMY GOODMAN: And this officer, Pendergrass, said, “I’ll get concerned when you show me a dead body.”

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Well, that’s what—those are the reports in the paper. I wasn’t there, so certainly I can’t say, but that is what I have read.

RENÉE FELTZ: And, Dr. James Gilligan, you wrote this report for the City of New York board that oversees the Rikers Island prison where this prisoner died. And he—we noted he was in a mentally ill section of the prison—of the jail, I should say. And you wrote in your report about how “The nation’s jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals” for the past half-century. And you say even that the proportion of people in this country who are currently housed in a mental hospital or correctional facility, there’s about 95 percent in correctional institutions and only about 5 percent in these mental detentions, medical facilities. Can you talk about the situation with the mentally ill and the use of solitary with them in Rikers Island and prisons around the country?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Well, as you mentioned, the U.S. has criminalized mental illness. We now put the mentally ill—instead of in mental hospitals, we put almost all of them, 95 percent, in prisons and jails instead, which is the worst possible place for them, even if they’re not put in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement alone, even in people with no history of mental illness, can provoke hallucinations, where people start hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. People can become delusional. They become disoriented to reality and lose touch with reality. They can become suicidal. That’s people with no history of mental illness. If you put somebody who’s already mentally ill and already struggling with these problems in solitary confinement, it’s the worst possible thing you can do for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Lance Lowry in Houston, Texas, you represent the Texas prison guards. Talk about the letter that you made public in January.

LANCE LOWRY: What we found is the overall use of solitary confinement in Texas was not serving its intended purposes. We went from a couple hundred lock-up cells to over 8,000 at one point. The state has taken measures to reduce the use of solitary. One initiative has been the use of the GRAD program, which is the Gang Renouncementing and Disassociation program, where gang members are offered a chance to get out of the gangs and go back into general population. Another program that has been successful here in Texas has been our Ad Seg pre-release program, or ASPP program, which prepares inmates that are in solitary for a number of years to get ready to be released out into the world. Unfortunately, in Texas, we release over 1,200 inmates directly out into the public. If these guys are too dangerous for our prison population, then imagine the public safety concerns when we’re releasing them out into out general public.

RENÉE FELTZ: So, Lance Lowry, we are talking with a psychiatrist and yourself, who has been a longtime guard in Texas prisons. You have your own laboratory with which to study these practices that you’re describing, the impact of the use of solitary. And I wanted to ask you about this—as you say it, a perhaps excessive use of solitary in prisons, and how this impacts the guards’ behavior, but also the prisoners’ behavior and the guards’ ability to control their behavior. I believe you’ve written about this. Can you describe what this is like, as you see it?

LANCE LOWRY: Well, when you place somebody in solitary, you lose a lot of management control over that person. There’s not much more you can do. And, you know, correcting bad behavior at that point is—it’s not a positive step. You don’t have the steps and the ability to correct negative behavior. Plus you have the aspects, increased exacerbation of mental health issues. I’ve seen offenders cut on themselves, go to the point of even rubbing feces on theirselves due to the rapid deterioration. There’s no sensory stimulation in these cells, and that creates a major problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Gilligan, you’re nodding your head.

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Yes. This is a—this is a nationwide problem. The stories like the ones you just described at Rikers Island, I hear them from all over the country, from Massachusetts, from Arizona, from California. It’s just everywhere. We in this country have made the mistake of—after we closed down the mental hospitals in this country, starting in the 1960s, to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, get them out of big, overcrowded, underserved mental hospitals, we never put in place the community resources, the community residences, the halfway houses, and the small intensive care units which the original Community Mental Health Act that President Kennedy signed into law required. The country simply closed down the mental hospitals and didn’t put anything remotely adequate in their place. As a result, the mentally ill have wound up either homeless, in jails and prisons, or dead, or, finally, overwhelming families who aren’t prepared and equipped to deal with somebody who is seriously mentally ill.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. James Gilligan and Lance Lowry, we’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’ll continue this discussion. Then we’re going to the border to speak with a young man who was just deported, a young Phoenix man, and now is trying to come back into the United States today. I also want to ask you, Dr. Gilligan, about your recent tour of Rikers Island. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz. Our guests are Lance Lowry in Houston, president of the Texas Correctional Employees, and, here in New York, Dr. James Gilligan—for decades was at Harvard Medical School, now at New York University, clinical professor of psychiatry and adjunct law professor, co-author of a report for the New York City Board of Corrections that found that prolonged segregation of the mentally ill in the city’s jails violates Mental Health Minimum Standards. The tour of Rikers, if you could briefly say what you saw and what you feel needs to be there?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: Well, first of all, the buildings themselves are outrageous. Zookeepers are not allowed to keep zoo animals in the kind of housing that we put human beings in, in jails like Rikers Island. We learned that animals die when they’re put in a concrete cage with bars on the walls. So zoos created, you know, gardens and places for animals to live the way they were evolved to live. We treat human beings worse than we treat animals, and then we act surprised when people behave like animals. But, of course, we have—we’ve created the situation. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy: We say, “These are animals, they’re going to behave like animals,” then we treat them so that they will.

AMY GOODMAN: What could be done at Rikers?

DR. JAMES GILLIGAN: First of all, about 40 percent of the Rikers Island inmates have a diagnosis of mental illness of one sort or another. Close to 80 percent have a substance use disorder, alcohol being the most serious and severe, because that’s the one most associated with violence of all the drugs we have.

What I have proposed is that Rikers Island take the mentally ill inmates and create a mental hospital on the grounds of Rikers Island that would be staffed by a professional mental health staff, ideally affiliated with a local medical school, so that it can serve as an extension of the teaching hospitals in the medical school. New York University School of Medicine already provides inpatient care for the Rikers Island inmates, when they need that, in Bellevue Hospital, in the prison ward. It would be ideal if there were a mental hospital right on the grounds, or in other words, if about half of that jail was simply turned into a big mental hospital. As one psychiatrist pointed out, the biggest mental hospital in the country is the Los Angeles County Jail; the second largest is Rikers Island. If we’re going to put the mentally ill there, we should turn it into a mental hospital, because that’s what these people need.

Instead, we put the mentally ill in solitary confinement. For many, that became the default placement. And, you know, the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights both have declared prolonged solitary confinement to be a form of torture. And it clearly is. It’s psychological torture. It drives people crazy and makes them suicidal.

RENÉE FELTZ: And, Lance Lowry, I want to end with you and briefly get your perspective on what needs to be done with the guards who are in these prisons and jails, in terms of training and how to deal with the mentally ill prisoners and those in solitary.

LANCE LOWRY: We definitely need to up our training on training these officers on how to deal with the mentally ill. You know, just like he said earlier, the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas is the Harris County Jail right here in Houston. And we need to be able to train these officers to recognize, identify these inmates with mental health conditions. And we also need to increase our treatment programs. These facilities lack a lot of resources. And this has been due to our legislative bodies not funding these entities and moving or closing down our mental health facilities and diverting them over to prisons. And we need to stop—stop diverting mentally ill people into the prison and divert them out.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Lance Lowry, president of the Texas Correctional Employees, speaking to us from Houston, and Dr. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychology and adjunct law professor at New York University. We will link to your report for the New York City Board of Corrections that found prolonged segregation of the mentally ill in the city’s jails violates the Mental Health Minimum Standards. And we’ll also post online Mr. Lowry’s report calling for a reduction of solitary confinement in Texas—again, particularly significant, as he is head of the Texas guards’ union.

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