A North Carolina prisoner with a history of mental illness who was found dead in a transport van after being transferred to another prison died due to dehydration, according to the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office.

However, the state pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Michael Anthony Kerr, 54, said records provided by the Department of Public Safety were so scanty and incomplete that she was unable to determine whether his death was accidental, a suicide or a homicide.

Prison records indicate that Kerr was held in solitary confinement for 35 days prior to his death and had spent the last five days of his life handcuffed and largely unresponsive. Prison officials repeatedly turned off the water to his cell because he had flooded it, and put him on a diet of milk and nutraloaf. The milk was later ordered withheld.

“They treated him like a dog,” said Kerr’s sister, Brenda Liles.

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By Jerry Large  Image courtesy socksonanoctopus.com- Reading a series of Seattle Times articles about “the empty promises of prison labor” made me think how hard it is to get something good from a system that is, at its core, all about failure on multiple levels — of individuals, of families, of government. Reporters Michael J.…

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By Stephanie Mencimer / motherjones.com

Passed in 1994, California’s “three strikes” law is the nation’s harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children’s shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California’s prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

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By Matt Clarke

Studies have shown that the prevalence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among adult prisoners is more than seven times higher than among non-incarcerated adults.

Traumatic brain injury occurs when a person suffers a disruption of brain function due to an injury – such as an impact from an accident, playing sports or an assault. The most common form of TBI is a concussion.

Medical researchers have discovered that minor TBIs, previously believed to be inconsequential and transient, can result in lasting disabilities. They also discovered that the injuries caused by TBIs are cumulative, in that a series of minor TBIs can lead to major impairment.

Most people who suffer the most minor form of TBI, a concussion, will recover more or less fully within a year. For the 15% who do not, persistent symptoms may include headaches or increased irritability that interferes with everyday functioning.

Sometimes TBI results in behavioral issues that are a direct consequence of the impact that caused the injury. For example, in a vehicle accident or assault, the impact is often to the top front of the head just above the frontal lobes, which regulate behavior. Frontal lobe TBI also can be caused by the brain impacting the skull inside the head, such as during a sudden acceleration or deceleration. This type of injury can result even when the head is not hit directly.

Around 8.5% of the non-incarcerated adult population in the United States has suffered a traumatic brain injury; 2% currently suffer from some form of disability due to past TBI.

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By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Maj. Michael Gruver is all too familiar with the desperate howls and chilling sounds of clinking on steel bars as he makes his routine strolls down the halls of solitary confinement. Gruver, a correctional employee of the William P. Clements unit in the state of Texas oversees some of the men housed in isolation. Gruver admits working with a large mental health population can be grueling.  There are a lot of mentally ill inmates at the Clements Unit. 

Clements officers are qualified to deal with mentally ill inmates after completing a mere two and a half weeks of training. The main objective of the training is for equipping correctional officers to protect mentally ill inmates from harming themselves and others.

The Texas Tribune, a non-profit news organization has produced evidence from an extensive investigation of 99 Texas prisons that Texas prisons with high occurrences of violent behavior are linked to mental illness.

The research conducted for the six-year period of 2006-2012 indicates the prisons that reported the most significant numbers of violent related episodes within the walls of their facilities have significantly larger mentally ill populations.  Image courtesy vtdigger.org 

These troubling statistics worry Michele Deitch, prison expert at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Deitch is questioning the competency of correctional administration to effectively address mentally ill inmates and maintain security.

Deitch claims the situation is too dire to overlook.

According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data, out of the five facilities with the highest concentration of violence-related reports, three of them are psychiatric units. The William P. Clements Unit which houses 1,800 mentally ill inmates out of an inmate population of 3,500 is one of the five facilities in the category of high-violence.  The prison not only houses mentally ill inmates but it also has a wing dedicated to G-5 offenders, those considered the most dangerous. The prison has 448 cells for isolation; as of September 21, 2013, 435 of them were occupied.

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