[Ppnews] Mentally ill inmates languish in solitary confinement

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Feb 5 14:52:42 EST 2012


Hundreds of mentally ill inmates languish in 
solitary confinement in prisons ill equipped to treat them



CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE: This is the first in an 
occasional series of columns and editorials on 
mental illness and Michigan’s criminal justice and mental health care system.

On Jan. 10 of last year, corrections officers at 
Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility found 19-year 
old Kevin DeMott banging his head against a blood-stained cell wall.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 11, 
inmate No. 608233 had languished in solitary for 
four months, sometimes without the psychotropic 
medication his psychiatrist prescribed. Normally 
5-foot-10 and 171 pounds, he had lost 25 pounds.

Officers ordered DeMott to stop banging his head, but he continued.

After DeMott told officers who tried to restrain 
him that they would have to kill him, he was hit 
twice with pepper spray, then manacled in belly 
chains and leg irons, according to a critical 
incident report. Soon after, prison authorities 
charged him with disobeying a direct order, 
resulting in 30 days’ loss of privileges.

Too often, the Department of Corrections punishes 
instead of treats mental illness. Michigan’s 32 
prisons hold thousands of mentally ill inmates, 
including as many as 200 isolated in segregation 
cells, where they are locked up for 23 hours a 
day, or longer, unable to participate in 
treatment programs, and sometimes cut off from 
the medications prescribed to help manage their illnesses.

It’s an insidious cycle: Mentally ill inmates act 
out and exhibit unstable or destructive behavior. 
Prison officials respond by further restricting 
their movements and their opportunities to get treatment.

Privately, MDOC officials acknowledge that many 
mentally ill inmates don’t belong in prison, 
where security demands trump treatment needs. 
Over the last two decades, however, Michigan has 
slashed spending on in-patient treatment, leaving 
courts with few options but to send mentally ill offenders to jail or prison.

“We don’t control who comes to us,” said Russ 
Marlan, administrator of MDOC’s executive bureau.

Between 1987 and 2003, Michigan

MARK REINSTEIN, president of the Mental Health 
Association in Michigan, commenting on the prison 
practice of putting some inmates in 
administrative segregation, the most restrictive level of custody

closed three-quarters of its 16 state psychiatric 
hospitals. Michigan now provides fewer 
psychiatric beds per capita than all but five 
other states, according to the Treatment Advocacy 
Center. County jails and state prisons have 
become, in effect, the state’s primary mental health institutions.

A 2010 University of Michigan study found that 
more than 20% of the state’s prisoners ­ about 
10,000 inmates out of a population of 45,000 ­ 
had severe mental disabilities. The same study 
found that 65% of those with severe mental 
disabilities had received no treatment in the 
previous 12 months ­ a finding MDOC disputes. 
MDOC, which started screening new prisoners for 
mental health needs a year ago, estimates that 
17% of its prisoners are mentally ill, although 
the department’s estimates before the screenings were as high as 25%.

Worse, nearly 1,000 inmates in Michigan are in 
administrative segregation, the highest and most 
restrictive custody level, and many of them are 
mentally ill. MDOC administrators acknowledge 
that the percentage of mentally ill inmates in 
segregation is probably higher than in the 
overall population. Prisoners in segregation are 
handcuffed when they leave their cells, eat off 
serving trays pushed through the slots of steel 
doors, and generally lack the few privileges 
extended to those in general population, such as 
telephone calls, contact visits and television. 
Some stay in segregation for months, even years.

“It’s one of the worst things you can do for the 
seriously mentally ill,” said Mark Reinstein, 
president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan.

It also appears to violate the department’s own 
policies, which state that “prisoners with a 
mental disability ordinarily should not be housed 
in segregation if the disability may preclude 
adequate adjustment.” MDOC policy also states 
that prisoners should have access to health care, 
including psychological services, consistent with community standards.

Smart but troubled kid

Kevin DeMott was just 13 when he used a toy gun 
to hold up a Little Caesars pizza store in Battle 
Creek on Nov. 17, 2005. With a heavy marijuana 
habit, DeMott owed $600 to drug dealers who 
threatened his life. But he fled before 
collecting any money from an employee and three teenage customers.

“I was scared,” DeMott said during a recent 
interview at the Marquette Branch Prison, where 
we were separated by glass and communicated 
through phones. “I just ran out of the store and 
took off down the street.” Police arrested him a 
few blocks away but never recovered the toy gun.

DeMott showed promise as a student, attending 
Endeavor Charter Academy in Battle Creek through 
the fourth grade. But he also exhibited sudden 
fits of rage from the time he was 4, erupting in 
tantrums of yelling and hitting that lasted as long as three hours.

Sawyer Lahr, a childhood friend from Battle 
Creek, recalls DeMott as a smart, tender kid who 
brought snacks to his older brother and Lahr but 
sometimes exploded with little provocation, 
punching a hole in a wall or throwing an ax at a window.

“There was a fine line between anger and love 
with him,” said Lahr, now a 24-year-old film 
school graduate. “I don’t remember him having a 
lot of other friends.” DeMott started taking 
psychotropic medications at 9. Frequently truant 
from school, he entered a juvenile home in Calhoun County when he was 11.

“The medications weren’t working,” said his 
mother, Lois DeMott, who now lives in Lansing. 
“He gained 20 pounds. The side effects of the 
medication made it very difficult for him to cope.”

After the attempted robbery, DeMott received a 
blended sentence with placement in another 
juvenile facility ­ Clarinda Academy ­ in Iowa, 
which offered few services for the mentally ill.

DeMott’s behavior became more unstable, his 
thinking more fatalistic and obsessive. At night, 
he would chew off the stems of his glasses and 
cut himself with the broken edges. He wrote his 
mother a suicide note. DeMott failed the program 
and came home six months later in January 2007, 
returning to the juvenile home in Calhoun County. 
There, DeMott attempted suicide by hanging and, 
later that year, by cutting his wrists in the Calhoun County Jail.

Harsh prison placement

DeMott entered prison in May 2007, sentenced to 
23-60 months on four counts of attempted armed 
robbery, with credit for time served. It was a 
ridiculous sentence for a 15-year-old, as even 
then-MDOC health services administrator Lynda 
Zeller suggested: “It is unfortunate that Mr. 
DeMott was directed into prison at 15 years old 
rather than being retained in the juvenile 
justice system where more age-appropriate 
resources exist,” Zeller wrote in an Oct. 20, 2008, confidential memo.

During DeMott’s first prison term, he racked up 
52 misconduct tickets, including citations for 
threatening behavior, disobeying direct orders, 
destruction of property, assaults and insolence. 
His most serious infraction ­ a 2008 assault that 
sent an officer to the emergency room with cuts 
and abrasions ­ resulted in a second prison term of 14 months to five years.

DeMott was paroled on the robbery charge in April 
2009 but returned to prison three months later. 
Since then, De-Mott has compiled nearly 50 more 
misconduct tickets. Eligible for parole since 
July 26, DeMott will see the Parole Board again 
in a year, but he could stay in prison until November 2015.

MDOC health records show DeMott has bipolar 
disorder, a history of marijuana abuse, seriously 
disordered moods, impaired anger and impulse 
control, and poor stress tolerance. Symptoms 
include anger mania and aggression. He is at 
intermediate risk of suicide. An MDOC treatment 
plan for De-Mott dated Oct. 17, 2011, warned that 
“being locked in his cell all day” could increase the risk of relapse.

Even so, he has spent nearly a year of his 
current prison term in segregation, where his 
mental health problems appear to be punished 
instead of treated. On Sept. 17, 2011, for 
example, DeMott ripped a suicide blanket in order 
to hang himself. He was found guilty of 
destroying property, ordered to reimburse the 
department $145 for the blanket and given 12 days’ loss of privileges.

“It’s like a panic attack, like being trapped in 
an elevator,’’ DeMott told me, describing his 
feelings before a fit of rage. “Eventually, I 
have to do something to get it out.”

During our 45-minute conversation at Marquette, 
DeMott was cogent and courteous, though he showed 
little emotion. Already certified, he hopes to 
work as a fitness trainer. He writes poetry and 
wants to attend college and work on prison reform.

“If I can’t get proper care with what my mom and 
family are doing, what about the guys who have no support?” he said.

Further reforms needed

DeMott’s case is hardly the most egregious in the 
prison system. In August 2006, for example, I 
reported the death of Timothy Joe Souders, a 
mentally ill 21-year-old serving one to four 
years for petty theft and resisting arrest. He 
died of heat and thirst, after spending four days 
strapped down in a segregation cell.

The state settled a federal lawsuit filed by his survivors for $3.25 million.

Since then, the department has initiated mental 
health care reforms, including more effective 
screening, employee training, weekly clinical 
reviews of mentally ill prisoners in segregation, and new treatment programs.

Still, the department and state Legislature need 
to enact more fundamental changes, including 
restricting the use of segregation for severely 
mentally ill prisoners, as New York did last year 
with a prison solitary confinement exclusion law. 
Meantime, any mentally ill inmate in segregation 
should be checked daily by a mental health professional.

Even mentally ill inmates who must be isolated 
for security reasons are entitled to treatment at 
one of MDOC’s inpatient or residential centers.

For Lois DeMott, a middle-class former hospital 
worker and day care operator, her son’s plight 
has turned into a mission. A year ago, she 
cofounded Citizens for Prison Reform, an advocacy 
group for Michigan prisoners and their families 
that meets monthly and lobbies for legislative reform.

“This has changed my life,” she said. “I’m not just fighting for one prisoner.”


SAWYER LAHR, a childhood friend of Kevin DeMott

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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