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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