Mentally Ill in Jail – Our Dirty Little Secret

Posted: June 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’m at the Jackson Correctional Institution, a facility in the Wisconsin Prison System (WPS).  In all honesty, I am unhappy.  My newspaper subscription gets the paper to me a few days late because it goes through the mail.  But in the Regional Section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 29th was an article entitled “Inmate faces trial in suicide of cellmate; He watched killer hang, officials say”.  It seems 20 year old convicted murderer Adam Peterson committed suicide at Dodge Correctional Institution in January 2009.  His background, as much as I have gotten is that he was a college student who dropped out, and according to the newspaper, then “developed” a mental illness and then committed murder.  While incarcerated at the Dane County Jail, he apparently became suicidal.  Like most other county jails, he was then isolated from others for months, most likely in restraints a good portion of that time.  One of the dirty little secrets of corrections is folks who suffer from conditions jailers don’t understand and aren’t equipped to deal with is that they will strip such people of all dignity, by taking their clothes and putting them in things like “turtle suits”.  “Turtle suits” are where they bind you naked between what are like mattresses.  They’ll leave such folks there for hours if not days with only breaks for restroom use – if your lucky.  When and if they graduate from this, the inmate gets placed in a cell with no contact with anyone and especially at Dodge Correctional Institution, often with no reading material of any kind, no way to mentally distract yourself from whatever demons are tormenting you.  See this blog start with the First Day:  Part II for a very vivid description of these conditions.  Another dirty little secret in corrections is that they employ Doctors who rubberstamp jail policies concerning medications that another Doctor has determined is in their best interest but not in agreement with how the jail wants to proceed.  They employ their Doctor to change the inmate’s prescription to something more to their liking, regardless of inmate need.  They’ll tell the inmate they don’t want them sleeping their time away or they’re worried about others getting their hands on the medications, but the truth is they simply don’t want to pay for them.  In addition, these Doctors allow methods of restraint and isolation that those mentally ill outside of jail would never be subjected to.  The truth is they employ these methods as a punitive sanction, to make it easier on jail staff, and follows an outdated method for dealing with the mentally ill.  For those already mentally ill, such as Adam Peterson, the methods that are called “treatment”, push them to a very dangerous place.  They’ll do absolutely anything to escape these conditions – including violence for themselves or others.  Peterson, who I’m sure had been subjected to these conditions for months prior to his arrival at Dodge Correctional Institution (DCI), is anticipating relief in the conditions at DCI, only to find his nightmare continued unabated.  Desperate to escape, he commits suicide. This isn’t the end however.  His “cellie” (Cellmate) is accused by the State of Wisconsin of assisting in the suicide. It’s unfortunate there won’t be a trial.  He took a plea.  Perhaps a trial would have brought to light the lack of proper care shown to incarcerated mentally ill people, and how it might have contributed to Peterson’s death.  Perhaps we would have found out if Dane County Jail had communicated his mental status to DCI and what if any action they took.  There are a lot of people represented by institutions whose hands are all dirty in this. 

What is the solution to housing the mentally ill in jail?  There’s so much work to do here.  But for those in jail, nothing will change until they have a forceful advocate.  It’s so easy to ignore what goes on behind locked doors when it doesn’t touch the average person’s life.  But that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

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