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Brute Force is the 'Treatment' of Choice In US Prisons When it comes to the Mentally Ill

By Kanya D'Almeida
They called it the "shoe leather treatment" because that was exactly what it was: 10 or 11 guards, sometimes more, would form a circle around the patient and kick him unconscious. Then they'd drag him across the room, strip him naked and throw him in a tiny room with just one window to allow in the snow, and leave him there to freeze.

That was in 1961 in Pennsylvania's Farview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Twenty years later, the routine abuse that took place there became the subject of a memoir by Bill Thomas who survived 10 years in that institution before breaking out and eventually testifying before a Special State Senate Committee Inquiry on the practices of administrators, guards and even doctors at Farview State Hospital.

The facility has since been closed down, as were thousands of others like it during the wave of "deinstitutionalization" in the 1960s and '70s. Some state mental hospitals remain, but they are much less prevalent than they once were.

However, the shoe leather treatment lives on in jails and prisons around the country, which have become surrogate institutions for people with mental illnesses and where violence, neglect and abuse of prisoners labeled with psychiatric disabilities is on the rise.

Callous and Cruel

There is no hard data nationwide on the use of force against people diagnosed with mental illness, but a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released at the end of May documents, for the first time, the extent of the problem across the approximately 5,100 jails and prisons in the United States.

"We have no data to make any kind of statistical assertion on the issue," Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US program at HRW and author of the report, explained to Truthout, "but it is fair to assume that it happens in every state, and that it exists in small and large jails, and in small and large prison systems."

Entitled "Callous and Cruel," the research confirms what news items, court cases and personal anecdotes have been suggesting for years: that corrections officers nationwide systematically assault prisoners living with psychiatric disabilities with chemical sprays, strap them down for days on end, shock them with electric stun devices, fling them into isolation and leave them with burned skin, broken bones or damaged organs from beatings.


Callous and Cruel
Use of Force Against Inmates With Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons


In their very architecture, prisons are highly regimented places; the inability of prisoners with psychiatric disorders to immediately and unquestioningly respond to the endless orders and routines that dictate prison life means they are frequently at the receiving end of excessive force.

HRW estimates that 58 percent of state prisoners nationwide with a diagnosed mental illness have been charged with rule violations, compared to 43 percent of prisoners who were not diagnosed with mental disabilities.

These "violations" usually involve issues related to their disabilities or altered states of consciousness: paranoia, self-harm, hallucinations or delusions. Prison records document mentally ill prisoners screaming incessantly to drown out the voices in their heads, inserting sharp objects into their penises and smearing feces on the walls. A serious dearth of comprehensive policies guiding the use of force in thousands of institutions that comprise the US prison archipelago means that guards with no psychiatric experience are free to exert extreme punishment for even the most minor offense.

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