Solitary & Mental Illness
February 18, 2021
A few weeks ago, I was awakened out of my sleep at around 3 o’ clock in the morning by the sound of my cellmate (whom I'll refer to as “D”) pacing around the cell and mumbling words that I couldn't make out. My first thought was that maybe he’d been having trouble sleeping so he was up listening to music through his earbuds to help clear his mind. I chalked up the mumbling to him rapping along to whatever song he was listening to. But when I turned around and looked over at him, I was surprised to see that not only was he not listening to his music player; he had his shirt off and was clenching two ink pens in his hands as if they were knives. The expression on his face was one of fear and anger. Though “D” and I had never had any issues, seeing him in this state automatically put me on edge. I had no idea what he was thinking or what he was about to do, so I set up and asked him what was wrong.
“Man, I just heard them out there talking about me!” he exclaimed.
“Who?” I asked
“I don't know! But I think they're trying to come Rob me!” he responded fearfully. “I'm going to stab them if they come in here!”
Again, this was around 3:00 a.m., and our housing unit was locked down. It seemed odd that “D” claimed he heard people plotting against him because no one was supposed to be outside their cells. But just to make sure, I got up and walked to the door to see if there was anyone lurking around the day room.
“See, don't you hear them?” he asked, wanting me to confirm what he thought he was hearing. “You hear them out there talking about me, right?” It was at that moment that I realized he was having some sort of mental health crisis because, as I expected, there was no one in the day room. In fact, it was completely quiet out there. Whatever he was hearing was in his own head.
Throughout the course of the week, “D” began having more of these paranoia-like incidents. He started randomly approaching guys in our housing unit and accusing them of talking about him. He even began walking around with magazines wrapped around his torso, claiming it was to protect him from “them” stabbing him. Seeing the deterioration of his mental state, a few of his close friends and I contacted the mental health department to try to get him some help. When a group of officers arrived later that day to escort him out, we were all relieved, thinking they were taking him to the psych ward to get the treatment he needed.
A couple days later, one of those officers stopped by my cell to inform me that “D” was in solitary confinement trying to commit suicide. When I asked him why “D” was in solitary confinement, he told me that's where the institution places offenders who are under psychiatric observation. The expression on my face could have cracked a mirror. My intention had been to help my cellmate get treatment; not to get him thrown in the hole! Having been in there myself, I'm very well aware of how psychologically torturous that environment can be, especially for someone already suffering a mental health crisis. The fact that “D” is now attempting suicide lets me know his condition is getting worse. Unfortunately, as of this writing, he is still in solitary confinement and has been in there for almost 2 weeks. Not because he received any institutional infractions; but because he became too mentally unstable to remain in general population.
This is the reason bills that aim to eliminate or reduce solitary confinement (such as Virginia's SB 1301) are so important and need to be supported. In a 2014 report, the Treatment Advocacy Center referred to jails and prisons as “America's new asylums,” given the fact that there are about 10 times as many people with severe mental illness incarcerated as there are patients with several mental illness in state hospitals. This is worth noting because it has also been reported that mentally ill offenders (such as “D”) are relegated to solitary confinement at a higher rate than other offenders, regardless of the well-known effects this has on their condition(s). Two officers who aren't trained, qualified, or equipped to handle these inmates, putting them in solitary confinement is the only solution. Even though this is not the issue SB 1301 directly addresses, it is a step in the right direction toward eliminating ways solitary confinement can be abused. Remove this option and institutions will have no choice but to address the needs of mentally ill offenders the correct way. Had this law already been in place, “D” would likely not still be isolated in that cell right now attempting suicide.