Tennessee inmate’s mutilation sheds light on prison mental health

Nashville, Tenn. (AP) — John Hall, a fellow inmate of Tennessee death row inmate Henry Hodges, warned long ago that he was at risk because of severe neglect by prison officials, three decades in solitary confinement with very little human contact or interaction. After spending

In a federal lawsuit Hall filed in 2019 complaining that he too had been in solitary confinement for nearly six years and had no viable way to leave, he said of Hodges: “She has endured the most pernicious unnecessary (sic) and wanton neglect, have faced deprivation and abuse. I’ve looked at the death penalty. It is a miracle that he did not commit suicide.”

The warnings went unheeded, and last month Hodges cut off his own penis in what his lawyer called a “psychological disturbance.”

Hodges’ self-mutilation was an extreme event, but not without precedent in American prisons: Texas inmate Andre Thomas gouged out one eye five days after his arrest for murdering his wife and children in 2004, and in 2009 During his death sentence, he was removed. his remaining eye and told prison officials that he ate it.

While most cases fall short of those horrific examples, they underscore the significant, growing and unmet mental health care needs of prisoners.

A study released last year from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics compiled 2016 data, which found that 41% of federal and state inmates reported a history of mental illness, and 13% reported severe psychological distress in the past 30 days. had experienced. In the latter group, only 41% of state inmates said they were currently receiving any type of mental health treatment. The cure rate for federal prisoners was even lower, only 26%.

“Our prisons are not set up to provide mental health care, and they don’t do it very well,” said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the effects of solitary confinement. . decade.

Without adequate resources to care for mentally ill prisoners, the sickest are sometimes subjected to punitive measures, such as solitary confinement, which only exacerbates the problem.

In Tennessee, Hall’s trial pointed to the vicious cycle he faced.

Hall’s attorneys wrote, “He must be psychologically fit to exit solitary confinement, but the conditions of his confinement have caused psychological damage to him, and the lack of psychiatric treatment means he may not be able to exit solitary confinement.” may not be good enough for.”

Annual reports from the Tennessee Department of Corrections show that the number of inmates classified as having a “severe and persistent mental illness” will increase from about 5% of the population in 2002 to about 23% in 2022. About 19% are listed as having other mental illnesses.

Questions abound whether the state is doing enough to meet the crisis.

Tennessee’s Centurion, which won a five-year, $123 million contract in 2020 to administer mental health services to state-run prisons, has been accused of colluding with penitentiary officials in a bid by rival Corizon. A lawsuit was settled out of court, and the Department of Corrections said in May 2021 that it would renegotiate the contract. As of last week, one had not been awarded.

Meanwhile, a state comptroller’s audit in January 2020 found both Centurion – which has operated medical services since 2013 – and Corizon to be unable to consistently meet contractually required staffing levels. Problems were also found in the medical documentation in the audit.

“We could not locate mental health evaluations for all inmates with documented mental health conditions in our sample; Medical staff did not always include physician orders in patient files; We could not locate mental health treatment plans for all inmates with documented mental health conditions in our sample,” the audit reads.

The Department of Corrections blamed record-keeping problems on a cumbersome paper-based record system. The department called the transition to electronic health records a “top priority” in 2020, but said last week that it is still developing a request for proposals and has not determined when it will go out.

The department said staff vacancies did not affect inmate care because shifts were usually filled by other staff.

Haney, a psychology professor, said it didn’t matter to Hodges if Tennessee prisons had the best mental health care in the world as long as he remained in lockdown. He said that it is well established that even short periods of solitary confinement are harmful to a person’s mental health.

“What’s a doctor going to be able to do if, at the end of an hour, you’re put back in an empty cell where you’re going to be 23 hours a day?” They said.

When prisoners are isolated for weeks, they “fall out of touch with reality and do things that are inexplicable in any other context,” Haney continued. “We as human beings depend on connection and contact with other people. When you take that away, it becomes very destabilizing.”

Hodges was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of a telephone repairman and immediately put in solitary confinement. His behavior worsened over several days before he castrated himself on 7 October. According to court filings, Hodges went from smelling feces on the wall of his cell to cutting one of his wrists with a razor. When he was taken to the hospital, he asked to be put on suicide watch. But within hours he was back in a closet where he again used a razor, this time to cut off his penis.

After being released from the hospital, Hodges was returned to the hospital. There he was kept naked and burned 24 hours a day by his hands and feet on a thin mattress atop a concrete slab in a room with no mental stimulation such as radio or television, his lawyer said in a lawsuit filed in October. Was. 28. He compared his treatment to torture and said it violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

State attorneys defended Hodges’ treatment at a hearing the same day, with Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland arguing that he was receiving “around-the-clock care”.

Nashville Chancellor I’Ashea Myles ordered the Department of Corrections to provide better care, including providing clothing and mental stimulation to Hodges.

Hodges’ attorney is trying to get him transferred to the Middle Tennessee Institute of Mental Health. A preliminary injunction hearing in his case is scheduled for November 28.

Meanwhile, his fellow prisoners remain troubled. Hall filed a complaint on his own behalf on October 13, requesting that Hodges be granted special relief from prolonged solitary confinement. Hall wrote, “You have deprived the man of his sanity after thirty years of sensory deprivation seclusion.”

The complaint was dismissed as unwarranted, with the unit manager writing that Hall was not an official inmate advocate.

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