Solitary Confinement and the Mentally Ill

Dianne Frazee-Walker

After a major set-back the Colorado prison system is back on track.  Image courtesy www.upress.umn.edu

Before the death of Colorado Corrections director, Tom Clements, the Colorado DOC was working on reentry programs for mentally ill inmates released from solitary confinement.

Ironically, in March 2012, Evan Ebel, an inmate released directly from solitary confinement to the streets shot Mr. Clements in cold blood when he answered the door at his Colorado Springs home. Ebel was later tracked down by authorities in Texas and was fatally wounded in a police shoot out.

Sadly, Mr. Ebel targeted the wrong person upon whom to take out his anger against the correctional system because Clements was a strong advocate for changing solitary confinement policies.

Mr. Clements was a compassionate man who recognized the need for addressing the mental health issues of inmates who spent time in solitary confinement prior to release back into society. He was also dissatisfied with the number of inmates that were held in administrative segregation (aka ad seg) in Colorado Correctional facilities.

Just months shy of the one year anniversary of Clements’ death and the interruption of the progress the Colorado Correctional Department was making to solitary confinement policies, Kellie Wasko, the department’s executive director announced that “it was time to pick it back up and move on.”   

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A Tie to Mental Illness in the Violence Behind Bars

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Maj. Michael Gruver is all too familiar with the desperate howls and chilling sounds of clinking on steel bars as he makes his routine strolls down the halls of solitary confinement. Gruver, a correctional employee of the William P. Clements unit in the state of Texas oversees some of the men housed in isolation. Gruver admits working with a large mental health population can be grueling.  There are a lot of mentally ill inmates at the Clements Unit. 

Clements officers are qualified to deal with mentally ill inmates after completing a mere two and a half weeks of training. The main objective of the training is for equipping correctional officers to protect mentally ill inmates from harming themselves and others.

The Texas Tribune, a non-profit news organization has produced evidence from an extensive investigation of 99 Texas prisons that Texas prisons with high occurrences of violent behavior are linked to mental illness.

The research conducted for the six-year period of 2006-2012 indicates the prisons that reported the most significant numbers of violent related episodes within the walls of their facilities have significantly larger mentally ill populations.  Image courtesy vtdigger.org 

These troubling statistics worry Michele Deitch, prison expert at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Deitch is questioning the competency of correctional administration to effectively address mentally ill inmates and maintain security.

Deitch claims the situation is too dire to overlook.

According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data, out of the five facilities with the highest concentration of violence-related reports, three of them are psychiatric units. The William P. Clements Unit which houses 1,800 mentally ill inmates out of an inmate population of 3,500 is one of the five facilities in the category of high-violence.  The prison not only houses mentally ill inmates but it also has a wing dedicated to G-5 offenders, those considered the most dangerous. The prison has 448 cells for isolation; as of September 21, 2013, 435 of them were occupied.

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