Researchers estimate that, on average, at least 30% of all U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement are mentally ill (*1). Jail and prison correctional officers aren't medically trained to treat mentally ill individuals, so when these inmates display problematic behavior, the officers' first reaction is usually to place them in solitary confinement, either as a means of punishment, or simply so they won't have to deal with them. My first time in segregation made this notion crystal clear.
This incident occurred in 2008 while my case was still being adjudicated. After my trial - which resulted in me being convicted on all thirteen of my charges - the Commonwealth's Attorney had explicitly promised me that she was going to recommend a LIFE sentence, further adding that the judge always went with her recommendations. I'd already been in jail for about six months, and the thought of spending the rest of my life in such an awful environment, away from my children, my family, my career, my life...it was more than I could handle. I'd been previously diagnosed with poor mental health during my enlistment in the military, and all the stress I was under in jail likely triggered my disorder. I began rationalizing that my life was over anyway, so it would be best if I just ended it. Suicide seemed to be the obvious solution to my problems.
Razors were passed out every evening so we could shave. On this particular day, I signed out a razor, then went to my bunk, removed the blade, and sliced both of my wrists several times. I then got under my blanket so everyone would think I was asleep while I bled out. I figured I'd pass out and die peacefully while I was unconscious. Fortunately, the officer who'd handed out the razors returned to collect them quicker than he normally did. After collecting all the other razors, he noticed that I hadn't returned mine, so he came into the cellblock to look for me. That's when he found me in my bunk, under my blanket with blood everywhere. He radioed a medical emergency, whereupon the nurses rushed in and took me to the medical triage. I was kept there until the bleeding stopped and my vitals improved. However, after having my wrists bandaged, I was told I was going to be placed on "suicide watch" for two weeks while my mental health was monitored. Boy oh boy was I in for a surprise.
In jail and prison, suicide watch is nothing more than an especially cruel form of solitary confinement. I was placed in a single cell which was MUCH colder than the rest of the jail. It was freezing! All of my clothes and shoes were taken from me, as well as my sheets, blankets, and mattress. The only possession I was given was green Kevlar vest which served absolutely no purpose. I wasn't allowed to get visits from my family; there were no other inmates around for me to talk to; it was impossible to adequately sleep with my bare skin on that cold, metal bedframe; and I had no books, TV, or music to stimulate my mind. Living under those conditions and being alone with nothing but my thoughts drove me mad to a degree that I could never adequately convey. It was obvious that I wasn't being helped at all; I was being PUNISHED for attempting suicide. I realized that that was the whole point of suicide watch...to make inmates so uncomfortable and downright miserable that we'd fear attempting suicide again and ending up back in there.
The ACLU has reported that solitary confinement causes and exacerbates mental illness, leading prisoners in solitary to attempt suicide at significantly higher rates than those in the general prison population (*2). This couldn't be more true! While I was on suicide watch, not one minute passed that I didn't contemplate more ways of killing myself! All I wanted was to escape the horrible conditions in that cell, even if death was my only escape. After my two weeks were up, the jail's mental health specialist brought my mattress, clothing, and the rest of my belongings to the front of the cell where I could see them. She told me that she'd release me back into general population only if I agreed to sign some papers promising that I was okay, and that I wouldn't attempt suicide again. Of course, I wasn't genuinely okay, but the sight of my belongings sitting outside that door, and the prospect of being warm again, being able to see my family, watch TV, eat a hot meal, get a good night's sleep, and actually talk to other people made me all too eager to sign those papers and get out of that cell.
My punishment for attempting suicide was essentially a punishment for having poor mental health. Maybe this is why mentally ill prisoners are far more likely to spend time in solitary confinement than other prisoners (*3). Correctional staff don't want to deal with us - nor are they trained to - so for them, isolating us in a cell away from everyone is the solution. But for us, solitary confinement is not a solution at all. It only serves to make the underlying problems of our behavior (poor mental health) exponential(ly) worse.
*1. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty & The ACLU of New Mexico, "Inside the Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico's Jails and Prisons", p.5, October 2013
*2. ACLU, "End the Use of Solitary Confinement," p.1
*3. Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriff's Association, "The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey," p.1, April 8, 2014