The recent lawsuit on mental health in solitary confinement has brought a flicker of candle light to a subject that desperately needs a spotlight. Unfortunately, the subsequent settlement has pretty much guaranteed no further illumination.
My name is Adam Orr and I currently reside in the middle of the fray: ADX. I've been here on solitary confinement since 2011. Needless to say, I've seen a lot of inmates in desperate need of mental health care. However, before I go into all of that. I think you should understand what solitary confinement is.
To an inmate such as myself this simply means no cellmate. This is something all prisoners everywhere are in favor of. But like most everything in life, there are many degrees of solitary confinement.
For the most extreme, imagine "The Count of Monte Cristo". No windows, no property, no communication with anyone. I spent two weeks in Osage County jail back in early 1998 in the modern equivalence. I was a high profile escape risk so they kept me in an empty unit. I had nothing: not even a book to read or a sheet of paper to crumble. They left the bright lights on all night and all the time. I tried to cover them with wet toilet paper, they choked me unconscious; threw me in an equally empty cell, this time with no toliet paper. It was without a doubt the longest two weeks of my life. When I left for court, I would've confessed to killing Kennedy as long as I didn't have to return to Osage County.
The least restrictive case of solitary confinement is a single cell but with TV, phone and visitation privileges. Often you're allowed recreations with other inmates.
Anytime you see quotes or studies on solitary confinement, they are referring to the extreme. Years without any human contact will drive someone insane. But this is the real world not some movie. Here at ADX, solitary confinement is much close to the opposite end of the spectrum.
I have a TV, basic cable only, I use the phone. I get visits anytime my family wants a Rocky Mountain vacation. I can converse with my neighbors all day if I like or I can go outside for recreation where I can talk to several people at the same time. (Yes, they keep us separated by grillwork that makes us feel like dogs in a kennel but this essay is about mental health not about inhumane practice by the BOP. Look for future essays on the topic!) My point is, I often wish for more isolation, not less.
The lawsuit is absolutely correct about the abundance of mental health care patients here and about the absence of proper treatment. However, blaming isolation is way off base.
The problem begins with the courts themselves. Sick people should go to hospitals not prisons. ADX isn't alone in this issue. I spent many years at United States penitentiaries before coming to ADX and every place I've been I saw mentally ill inmates. They need medication and treatment from competent medical professionals (not from BOP correctional officers who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology just to get a pay grade jump.) Instead these sick people are thrown into an environment full of predators. They're often abused in ways you don't want to think about. This abuse only excacerbates their mental problems.
Inevitably, those inmates end up in Special Housing Units (aka: the hole) and are unable or unwilling to follow the necessary procedures to return to general population. They're labeled miscreants and trouble makers by people unqualified to treat them. Eventually too many end up here.
ADX was designed to keep very dangerous people from killing each other or staff. It's simply not build for the insane. They have layers upon layers of protocols we have to follow for years just to be eligible to leave. It's proven difficult for me, an intelligent, sane man to get out. The insane have no chance. So ADX has turned into a gathering pool for those who need help.
The only way they'll get this help is if the BOP hires real doctors and then gives them the authroity to make actual custody decisions. Right now the barely qualified staff has no authority what-so-ever.
General Mental Health
It isn't just the mentally ill who are adversely affect by the BOP's mental health policies. They often pull medical staff (including psychologists) to work custody. This concretes the belief that psychologists are just cops, aka; our enemy.
My father recently passed away. My step father is wasting away from cancer. I have two new grandchildren I haven't seen or hugged. Not long ago I had my own health scare and everyday I need to remind myself that I have reasons to live.
I'd love to be able to discuss these things with someone but I can't. Only rats talk to the cops and only nuts talk to the shrinks. BOP psychologist are both. I know this stereoptype isn't true but in my world perception is often more dangerous than reality. Any psychologist will tell you trust is a key component to treatment. How could I ever trust someone who works for my jailers?
The problem goes well beyond the institutional stuff, the entire BOP policy on mental healthcare is a waste of paper. We're required to take certain programs before we can leave here so I recently signed for a national "Turning Point" program. I'm not sure who designed this program but whoever they are, they clearly know nothing about prison. It contains page after page of lessons that would get someone raped, robbed or killed in here. And everytime I point out these mistakes to the psychologist who reviews my progress in the program, she defends the material. If I displayed this kind of disconnect between fantasy and reality, they'd diagnose me with a mental disorder!
The only way to make a dent in the mental health care issue in prison is to scrap the entire system. Begin with real psychological evaluations before sentencing. Have judges care about treatment over punishments. Then hire independent autonomous doctors inside the prisons who do not answer to the warden and who never work security.
One last thing. If its illegal to execute someone who is mentally ill, why is it ok to throw them into a cage and forget about them? One could argue execution would be more humane.
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