On Friday, January 29th, a UPLC intern and I spent the day visiting women at Logan Correctional Center. The primary purpose of the visit was to meet with prisoners who suffered from mental illness—all of whom are members of the plaintiff class in our recently-settled case challenging the way people with mental illness are treated in Illinois prisons (Rasho v. Baldwin). Yet again, these meetings drove home just how many seriously hurting people we house behind bars, and how far away we are from providing them with decent treatment. The details of some of the conversations I had are confidential, and covered by attorney-client privilege. Other women specifically gave me permission to share their stories.
WARNING: what follows are true stories with disturbing content. Trigger/content warnings: prison, sexual abuse, rape, self-harm, suicide.
Two of the women I talked to were on “constant watch” status. What is “constant watch”? It means that you are housed in a special cell, with a large glass window facing the hallway. You are stripped naked and all property is removed. All you have in your cell is a blanket. No toothbrush, no reading material, no silverware, no toilet paper, no soap. Nothing. A guard is assigned to sit outside your cell window and stare at you 24 hours a day, every day. This of course requires three guards, one for each shift, and those three guards literally can have NO other responsibilities. Since there were two women on constant watch status, a total of six guards were assigned this horrible job. These are the two women:
Tiffany first tried to kill herself at the age of 12. Her brother found her hanging, and rushed her to the hospital, where she received inpatient treatment at a mental health facility. Upon discharge, she began outpatient therapy, but quickly dropped out, and turned to street drugs. Her father started her on crack at age 14. When her father went to prison, Tiffany went to live with her mother. But her mother threw her out when she asked for money to go to rehab. Tiffany dropped out of school, and lived on the streets.
After two short stints in prison (for possession of drugs and trespassing), she was making some money doing sex work. She was hired for a party (by an adult male), but it turned out her actual client was a juvenile. Tiffany was arrested for sex with a minor—his consent is not a valid defense, because as a minor, he cannot legally consent. She was sentenced to five years in prison, and will have to register as a sex offender when released.
During her prison sentence, Tiffany has pretty constantly been on and off suicide watch. In the summer of 2015, she was housed in Logan’s mental health unit on watch, when she tried to hang herself. She was moved to the Health Care Unit and put on constant watch status in September 2015. Tiffany remained on constant watch through September, October, December; through Christmas, through New Year’s, and was still there when I visited. Five months.
The only times she leaves her cell are for groups—three times a week for a little less than an hour each, and for a meeting with a psychologist or psychiatrist, just for a few minutes, once a week. And for my visits. Tiffany is taking a heavy duty cocktail of medicine, but it is not working. She continues to try and kill herself. At this point, Tiffany does not believe that she will ever get off constant watch until she completes her sentence. She is scheduled for release in early May.
Tiffany expects to be released to a mental hospital—which is where she should have been all along. Except Illinois does not HAVE a hospital for mentally ill prisoners. We are almost the ONLY state in the US without one. Tiffany is caught in a terrible cycle of frustration, which she copes with by trying to harm herself, which triggers even harsher restrictions placed on her, which increase her frustration, leading to more self-harm. She needs intense therapy, coupled with closely monitored medication management, to break this cycle. But the Illinois prison system simply does not provide the level of care she needs. Instead, Tiffany remains in her cell more than 97% of her time. Stripped naked. Under constant watch.
“Melinda” (name changed to protect her privacy) started with a three-year sentence for battery, but added three more years for a “battery” on a guard in the county jail while awaiting trial, and five more years after that for a “battery” on a correctional officer at Logan. I put “battery” in quotes because both of these “crimes” were directly related to her untreated mental illnesses.
Melinda was removed from her mother at the age of 21 months. She was born with crack in her system, and when her younger brother was born dead, also with crack in his system, Melinda was taken from her mother. From 21 months until she was 21 years old, Melinda had a total of 32 different foster home placements. Melinda was raped repeatedly by two of those foster fathers. It is a vast understatement that she has never known a loving, stable home.
Melinda was civilly committed to a mental hospital at the age of 13, after she was raped by her first foster father and overdosed. When she was released, she was placed with a second foster family, where she was again raped. Her foster father was sent to prison as a result, and she was placed in a series of group homes and institutions. Melinda was first incarcerated at the age of 16, when she broke an exit sign in a home by jumping up and banging on it, as part of a game. When she ran away from her last facility, she went to live with her biological father, who promptly got her hooked on meth. She also started sharing needles, and now has Hep C.
When Melinda got into a fight, she was arrested, charged with battery, and sent to jail to await trial. When she arrived, she was addicted to huge doses of meth and bath salts. She tried to get help in the jail to detox, but no one listened. Melinda went through cold-turkey withdrawal, and during that period of agony, she allegedly hit a guard. She has no memory of that period. She was sentenced to an additional three years in prison.
At Logan, Melinda has been on and off watch virtually since she arrived. Since childhood, she has cut herself to relieve stress. When she does so, she is put on watch. Once released from watch, she rapidly deteriorates, and again cuts, and is returned to watch. Melinda has become very creative in finding objects to cut herself with—crumbling pieces of wall, pens, pencils, anything sharp. She has cut herself so often that her hands, arms, legs, and stomach are all a mass of scar tissue, interspersed with open, raw wounds. Prison doctors have stopped stitching up her cuts, telling her that as long as she is doing it to herself, she will have to live with the consequences. Melinda also swallows foreign objects—a piece of wire, glass, pencils, pens, and on and on. These are the only coping mechanisms she knows.
Her third conviction occurred while she was on watch in Logan’s mental health unit. During one of the brief times she was allowed out of her cell (to watch TV from a cage in the day room), she and the guard started arguing. She started banging on the wall, and then started opening and slamming the chuckhole in the cell door. The guard got angry, and came to lock the chuckhole shut. She tried to prevent that by leaving her hand in the chuckhole, but the guard slammed it shut on her hand, reopening some of the raw cuts on her hand. As she began bleeding profusely, some of her blood splashed on the guard. Getting your blood on a guard is considered battery to a peace officer, and she was sentenced to an additional five years in prison.
Most recently, the stepfather who raped Melinda was released from prison, and, in violation of his parole, mailed her a picture of the room he raped her in. This set her off. Unable to find anything in her cell to cut herself with, she waited until she was taken outside to the yard, climbed the fence, and used the razor wire at the top to slice open her hands, wrists, and arms. She had been on constant watch status for three days when I saw her.
Melinda has never had a chance to develop coping skills. She is caught in a cycle of self-harm, which will require intense therapy to break, and help her find new, less self-destructive, methods of dealing with stress. She probably needs closely monitored and supervised drug therapy, but has been so turned off of medication by the cavalier, ineffective way she has been prescribed drugs at Logan that she believes her only hope of recovery is electroshock therapy.
As with Tiffany, the Illinois Department of Corrections is not able to provide the level of care Melinda needs. Both of them belong in a hospital, not in prison.
Other Severely Ill Women
I met with seven other women, all diagnosed with serious mental illness—some housed in segregation, some in maximum security, some in the mental health unit, and one in general population. None were receiving adequate treatment, even in emergency situations (as when Melinda received the abusive photo from her rapist foster father). Several told horrible stories about the lack of response to calls for crisis intervention. In some units, when a crisis is called (e.g., “Help, I’m going to hurt myself soon”), the entire unit is denied out-of-cell time. This leads to tremendous peer pressure to not ask for help. It also leads to retaliation—one person calls a crisis one day, depriving everyone of out-of-cell time, so someone else calls a crisis the next day in retaliation. This, of course, also means that the guards tend not to take crisis calls seriously. There also are not enough mental health professionals to respond to crises—and none at all during the night (unfortunately, mental health crises don’t only occur on a 9 –5 schedule).
The Settlement and Beyond
Every one of the women I met with was appreciative of the improvements promised in our settlement—the creation of a hospital for the most ill; increased staffing that would allow better coverage and allow staff sufficient time to actually treat patients. But they were also very worried that the changes would take so long to implement (one to four years, assuming that the state manages to pass a budget; perhaps longer if it does not) that the settlement would not be much good to them. They need help now. Sadly, the justice system moves slowly. But UPLC is committed to doing whatever we can to fight for each of these women, and the thousands of other people in Illinois prisons who are suffering.