Sunday, April 29, 2007
By JAY STAPLETON
DAYTONA BEACH -- It's called "the buck naked cell."
For mentally ill inmates placed in solitary confinement at the Volusia County Branch Jail without clothing to prevent suicide, the experience is frightening.
But the practice is commonly used in jails and prisons throughout the country, and what some lawyers find most troubling is that the practice is used for people who have yet to stand trial.
"Telephones constantly ringing. Other inmates screaming. Sleep is difficult," inmate Brett Roberts testified during a court hearing on his treatment Wednesday. "I began to bang my head on the door, and I was told by an officer the governor was there to evaluate me for the death penalty."
Human rights activists say mentally ill inmates, who are increasingly finding themselves in county jails as social service budgets are slashed, are at special risk of abuse. Roberts' claims of taunts by those watching him, including jokes about his genitals, are plausible, they said. Prison officials did not address his specific claims, but said protocols were followed.
Calling for change, an attorney with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday there are alternatives to "stripping a person," including giving inmates suicide-proof gowns. Other options include closer monitoring of possibly suicidal inmates and building cells that make suicide "very difficult."
But such care is staff-intensive and costs more.
"That's why many resort to the far-cheaper option of throwing someone naked into a bare concrete cell," said David C. Fathi, who has brought lawsuits against jails and prisons throughout the country over how mentally ill people are treated in confinement.
In calling jails and prisons "asylums of last resort," Fathi says cost is most often the reason prisoners are held naked, a practice the group finds inhumane and unnecessary. An appeals court recently compared the practice "to a 1930s Soviet gulag," he said.
Roberts, 26, of Titusville spent a month locked up at the county jail for a violation of probation. There was no indication Roberts, who was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19, was psychotic or a danger to himself or others when he was moved here Feb. 12, according to testimony.
He'd pleaded no contest to a charge of fleeing from officers at a traffic stop and got probation. He was doing well and holding a job.
"People couldn't even tell I was mentally ill," Roberts said.
But when his court-ordered urine sample tested positive for marijuana, he was sentenced to spend six months in the county jail.
Within two weeks, paranoia and delusions that he was going to be killed prompted officials to move Roberts into seclusion. He was placed in a bare cell with a bunk, a toilet, a sink and no movable objects. The medication he got was not what Roberts had requested, and jail doctors never checked with the inmate's physician, he testified.
At times, Roberts testified, he was strapped into a restraint chair and sprayed with a chemical stunning agent because he did not comply with corrections officers. He refused to take his medication, according to testimony.
"He didn't start to get bad until he came to Volusia County," said Virginia Chester, his assistant public defender.
She argued Roberts should complete his sentence at home, claiming the mental breakdown was preventable and his civil rights were violated.
Circuit Judge William Parsons had ordered Roberts released last month until a hearing to determine whether he endured cruel and unusual punishment.
But the judge found the way Roberts was treated was neither cruel nor unusual.
"What does the jail do?" he pondered.
How Roberts was handled "beats the heck out of hanging yourself," he said.
He found care was taken to avoid injury to Roberts. There was no evidence his mental condition worsened because of a change in his medication, the judge said in disagreeing that a constitutional violation occurred.
All agreed, including the county's head of inmate mental-health treatment, who testified jail is not the place for those proven to be mentally ill.
But Dr. David Hager, director of mental-health services for Prison Health Services, defended the psychiatric treatment, saying Roberts was medicated under approved practices. Hager saw Roberts three times at the jail and said he had started "to stabilize."
Asked by attorney Chester if his treatment was humane, Hager answered, "That's a difficult question to answer in a corrections setting. A correctional setting is a different world, with different priorities."
Prosecutor Carine Jarosz told the judge Roberts shouldn't be allowed to use his mental illness as an excuse.
"He still did the crime," she said. "And he still needs to be punished accordingly."
The American Civil Liberties Union has called for reform of how mentally ill inmates are treated. A federal judge in New York is reviewing the settlement in a lawsuit that could impact how mentally ill inmates are treated in other states, including Florida, in the future.
The New York agreement calls for extensive reviews of all prisoners sent to solitary confinement.
The National Prison Project's Fathi said more reform is needed.
"The fact that so many (people with mental illness) end up in jails and prisons because there's no place else for them needs to change."