In New York, inmates diagnosed with “serious” disorders should be protected from solitary confinement. But since that policy began, the number of inmates diagnosed with such disorders has dropped.
By Christie Thompson, ProPublica
This story was co-produced with WNYC.
When Amir Hall entered New York state prison for a parole violation in November 2009, he came with a long list of psychological problems. Hall arrived at the prison from a state psychiatric hospital, after he had tried to suffocate himself. Hospital staff diagnosed Hall with serious depression.
In Mid-State prison, Hall was in and out of solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates and other rule violations. After throwing Kool-Aid at an officer, he was sentenced to seven months in solitary at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.
Hall did not want to be moved. When his mother and grandmother visited him that spring, Hall warned them: If he didn't get out of prison soon, he would not be coming home.
A grainy tape of Hall's transfer on June 18, 2010, shows prison guards spraying chemicals into his cell, forcing him to come out. He barely says a word as he is made to strip, shower, bend over and cough. His head drops, his shoulders slump. His face is blank and expressionless. He stares at his hands, except for a few furtive glances at the silent guards wearing gas masks and riot gear.
"There was somebody who looked defeated, like the life was beat out of him," said his sister Shaleah Hall. "I don't know who that person was. The person in that video was not my brother."
Multiple studies have shown that isolation can damage inmates' minds, particularly those already struggling with mental illness. In recent years, New York state has led the way in implementing policies to protect troubled inmates from the trauma of solitary confinement.
A 2007 federal court order required New York to provide inmates with "serious" mental illness more treatment while in solitary. And a follow-up law enacted in 2011 all but bans such inmates from being put there altogether.
But something odd has happened: Since protections were first added, the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness has dropped. The number of inmates diagnosed with "serious" mental illness is down 33 percent since 2007, compared to a 13 percent decrease in the state's prison population.