Isolation in jail, used for safety and punishment, can exacerbate mental illness
Virginian-Pilot - 8/23/2018
Aug. 23--More than 40 percent of the people counted by The Virginian-Pilot as dying in jail with mental illness were segregated from other inmates and housed in some form of isolation.
Forms of isolation have long been known to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illnesses.
Over half of them died by suicide, unwatched and alone.
That is the story of Amanda Sloan.
Sloan, 30, was an inmate at Santa Cruz County Jail in California. In July 2013, she fashioned a noose out of bed sheets, then removed a poster from the wall of her cell, revealing a pipe she had dug out of the drywall, according to a lawsuit her family filed. She tied the noose around the pipe and hanged herself.
While in isolation she was left "with the means to kill herself barely hidden behind the obviously noncompliant makeshift posters," the suit alleged.
Hangings were the most common way to die in isolation, accounting for 70 of the 167 isolation cases. The next most common, in only 17 of the cases, was cardiac-related events.
Sloan had given many signs that she was suicidal, the suit alleged. She threatened to kill herself after her husband was murdered in 2012 outside their home and died in her arms.
That trauma, coupled with her arrest, most likely left her fragile, said Ron Honberg senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"When anyone goes to jail, that's a shock in itself," Honberg said. "It's a period of vulnerability."
About a quarter of widows and widowers will experience clinical depression and anxiety during the first year of mourning, according to the the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
In the Pilot's database, depression is the third most prevalent mental illness among inmates put in isolation.
Just before she was arrested, Sloan pointed a gun at her head, taunting officers to shoot her. While in jail she was prescribed medications for her bipolar disorder that had the known side effect of prompting suicidal thoughts.
While locked up, Sloan attempted suicide at least twice by slashing her wrists, according to the lawsuit. But still she was put in isolation. It was later discovered that the officers had not done the required number of security checks and had falsified records to make it seem like they had. Sloan's family settled their lawsuit for $1 million.
Fifty-nine percent of isolation cases ended in a lawsuit, and 40 percent of those ended in a settlement.
Jails cite several reasons for separating inmates from the rest of the population. Sometimes it's for safety concerns or clinical purposes, but often it's because of their behavior.
Individuals who suffer from mental illness have difficulty conforming to facility rules, and isolation is often used as a form of punishment, according to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
This is what happened to Terrill Thomas. He spent seven days in isolation in Milwaukee County Jail, with the water in his cell shut off.
Terrill acted out and was put in isolation, where he would die alone, naked on the floor.
"They treated his mental illness as a behavioral problem and disciplined him," said Terrill's lawyer, Erik Heipt. "And the way they discipline him was incredibly inhumane."
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