As reported by WABC-DT (NY):
Treatment for prisoners with mental illness
(New York - WABC, April 9, 2007) - The figures are staggering. In the past 15 years, the number of inmates with mental illnesses in New York state prisons has grown by 71 percent.
An equally staggering number of them end up in disciplinary lockdown, often 23 hours a day. Now there is a growing call to address the crisis amid one family's heartbreaking story.
The Investigators' Sarah Wallace has more.
It's easy to dismiss prison inmates as someone else's problem, but in New York alone, it's estimated more than 3,000 inmates with mental illness are released every year into our communities. Many of them have spent months, even years in total isolation, with virtually no therapy.
"I'm afraid of them killing my son, that's what I'm afraid of," Barbara Smalls said. "Because he doesn't know when to back down."
Barbara Smalls has good reason to worry. For the past year and a half, her mentally ill son, Wayne, has been hit with a series of disciplinary charges after being involved in escalating confrontations with prison correction officers upstate. He's now in isolation at Southport Correctional facility, in what's called the SHU, special housing unit.
"He's confined 23 hours a day in a cell, and he's let out one hour for recreation," Barbara Smalls said. "They had him shackled from his wrist down to his feet, to his ankles, in the cell."
The family has documented a history of mental and emotional problems that date back to Wayne's childhood.
"He was diagnosed by several doctors, bi-polarism, ADHD, manic depressive, anxiety, panic, schizophrenia," Barbara said.
"You'll look a him and say, 'This guy's a nice guy, when he's on his medication.' When he's off of it? Freddie Kruger," father James Smalls said.
Wayne Smalls was first sent to prison in 2002 on a weapons charge, and was supposed to come home this June. But then he was accused of trying to assault staff and given four months in isolation. Smalls asked for help in a prison class and was accused of interfering and violating orders.
He's back in isolation at Southport. Jack Beck, an attorney for a prison watchdog group says Smalls' experience is typical.
"Often people with mentally illness start their SHU sentence not because they've done some terrible act, but they've done some smaller act," Beck said. "But then, once their in this environment, that is so difficult for them to cope with, they start yelling and screaming and just being non-cooperative."
Last month, Mrs. Smalls received a letter from a fellow SHU inmate who claimed he'd seen Wayne beaten by officers who "broke him up real badly."
That inmate's parents, who live in Brooklyn, say they've heard repeated horror stories from their son about the SHU.
"And I keep asking what's going on, and he says, 'Ma, it's like being in hell,'" the inmate's mother, Grace Banton said.
"What concerned him about Wayne is that he would have died and nobody would have known nothing," father Gilmore Banton said.
The Superintendent at Southport told the Smalls family an investigation showed use of force was necessary when Wayne refused to comply, that he wasn't seriously injured by staff.
"They're taking his frustrations as a sign of him being violent and not him having a mental illness," Smalls' brother, William, said. "They're taking his sickness as an act of violence."
"Instead of having mental health beds, we have prisons and jails for the mentally ill," Beck said. "And that is the story."
Advocates are now pushing for a state law that would prohibit mentally ill inmates from being placed in the SHU. But Wayne Smalls has been ordered to stay for at least six more months.
"They don't know Wayne like I know him, and I just can't let this matter, go," Mrs. Smalls said. "I can't."
Incredibly, there is no limit on time in the SHU, so inmates are racking up years and years in isolation.
Tuesday at 6 p.m., we'll meet one of them. He is a former inmate who spent 10 years on and off in 23-hour lockdown. He'll talk about his attempts at suicide and his downward spiral locked in a box.
It is a disturbing portrait that certainly raises an issue of cruel and unusual punishment.
(Copyright 2007 WABC-TV)
The story can be found at; http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?se...cal&id=5192019