The Tragedy of Mental Illness in American Prisons

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From The Atlantic:

On the morning of April 13, 2015, a guard at Sullivan Correctional Facility, a New York State maximum-security prison nestled deep in the woods of the western Catskills, ordered a prisoner named Karl Taylor to clean his cell. By all accounts, the cell, in the prison’s E North housing block—a special unit for inmates classified as mentally ill—was a rancid mess, strewn with papers and clothes, and soaked with shampoo and other liquids. Taylor, however, had balked for weeks at cleaning it. He insisted that as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment, guards had trashed his cell and stolen his belongings while he was being held in a mental-health observation unit in a separate wing of the 550-inmate prison.

Taylor had been in prison since 1995, serving a minimum sentence of 27 years for a rape conviction in his hometown of Troy, New York. After his arrival in state custody, he was diagnosed with delusional disorder and paranoid personality disorder. By 2015, he had already made two trips to the state’s prison psychiatric hospital, where he’d received medication to quiet his symptoms. And while he had periods of relative calm, he had spent almost half of his time behind bars—nearly 10 years—in solitary confinement, a debilitating experience that experts say disorients even the sanest of prisoners.

Most witnesses to what followed on that April morning agree that after a guard opened Taylor’s cell door, the stocky, 51-year-old African American inmate walked away, shouting that he wanted to be left alone and sent back to the observation unit, where those in crisis are monitored by doctors and nurses. The witnesses differ entirely on what happened next: Guards say Taylor wheeled around without warning and punched the officer, a muscular, 27-year corrections veteran named Bruce Tucker, in the face. Inmates on the cellblock say Tucker, who is white, struck first, cracking Taylor over the head at least twice with his heavy wooden baton. “You heard two loud bangs,” an inmate named Malik Thomas recalls, “like you would hit a hardball in baseball.”

Regardless of who started the violence, it ended badly: Tucker suffered a badly fractured arm after Taylor grabbed his baton and chased him across the cell tier, striking him repeatedly. Another officer had a serious concussion after also being struck and falling while trying to wrestle the baton from the prisoner. Things went much worse for Taylor. As he was being subdued by a throng of officers who had responded to the emergency, inmates heard him rasp that he couldn’t breathe. Handcuffed, he was frog-marched down a series of corridors to the prison’s clinic. Within minutes of his arrival there, he was declared dead.

Read the entire article in The Atlantic here.