November 9, 2007

Claim in 15-year-old girl's stabbing will highlight prison failures

The family of a 15-year-old San Francisco girl who was severely stabbed by a paroled prisoner plans to file a claim against prison officials next Monday.

Scott Thomas, who was accidentally paroled from San Quentin Prison due to a clerical blunder, had a documented history of bipolar disorder and was flagged by guards as needing treatment that he never received, two prison clinicians secretly told the San Francisco Chronicle. He randomly stabbed the 15-year-old girl and a man who came to her rescue at a bakery. After his arrest, he mumbled, "I'm taking on the world" before breaking into incoherent song, according to a police report.

Accidental releases are lawsuits waiting to happen. And it is lamentable when prisoners slip through the cracks of psychiatric treatment. But these issues miss the bigger picture: Thomas, a repeat theft offender who was only violent when in prison, was released to the streets straight out of solitary confinement.

Recipe for violence

Imagine being locked up all by yourself in a windowless cement box no bigger than a bathroom. Imagine being all by yourself in that box for months on end. (Thomas was only in "the hole" for four months; some prisoners in supermax prisons are kept in isolation for decades).

As depicted in the 1973 Steve McQueen film Papillon, based on a true story about an escape from a prison colony in French Guiana, it doesn't take long to have a mental breakdown under these conditions. Just a couple of days of solitary confinement with sensory deprivation can trigger psychotic hallucinations. Ellectroencephalogram research shows that after only a few days in solitary confinement, prisoners' brain waves shift into a stuporous, delirious pattern.

Now imagine that you are locked up in that windowless little box when you are already mentally ill and tormented by demons inside of your head.

Many prisoners, such as Thomas, are already fragile and unstable. They are even more prone to psychiatric breakdown than are healthy people who did not undergo severe childhood trauma. Putting mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement is like putting an asthmatic person in a room with no air, as a federal judge once put it.

When I worked in a segregation housing unit (SHU) for the mentally ill, I saw these effects first-hand. After a short time on the unit, many prisoners began to babble incoherently or to lie semi-comatose in a fetal ball. They screamed and yelled and hurled excrement and urine through the narrow slits in their cell doors. They tried to kill or mutilate themselves.

Further demolishing the psyches of these vulnerable prisoners is not only cruel, it is also a surefire recipe for community endangerment when they get released, as most eventually will. Some prison administrations have realized that discharging convicts straight from the hole to the streets is a dangerous practice. Oregon, for example, integrates prisoners back into the prison mainstream through classes and jobs before releasing them.

Despite the demonstrated, permanent harm to prisoners' psyches – which ultimately translates into harm to vulnerable victims such as the 15-year-old San Francisco girl – solitary confinement is on the rise. From 1995-2000, its use rose by a dramatic 40%, surpassing the overall prison population rise of 28% during that period.

"We have to ask ourselves why we're doing this," psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a Harvard professor and expert on segregation psychosis, told Time magazine. (For more on Grassian and his research, see my web page on "segregation psychosis.")

Wouldn’t it be great if rationality and community safety prevailed, and this barbaric practice was put to rest? Perhaps more lawsuits like this family's will get the attention of prison officials.

National Public Radio has an excellent, three-part series by Laura Sullivan on solitary confinement. In one episode, she spends the day with Daud Tulam, a New Jersey man adjusting to life on the outside after 18 years in solitary confinement. Tulam struggles with the common everyday things that we all take for granted, such as smalltalk, noise, and mere human companionship.