Incarceration is not meant to be fun or convenient. It’s a total loss of personal liberty. The prisoner is a ward of the state, utterly dependent on the correctional system for food, shelter, and medical care needed for basic survival. The system is failing them horribly.
The way we treat people convicted of crimes is an indicator of our values, our humanity. There’s no justifying the experiences in this report – we’re just here to take a long, slow look at a dark part of our collective conscience. Time to open our eyes!
The US imprisons more citizens by far than any other country in the world. About 2.12 million of us are behind bars, the majority serving time for drug, property, or immigration offenses. More than 550,000 inmates haven’t even been convicted – they couldn’t post bail, so they’re jailed awaiting trial.
Whether or not you feel we should be locking up all these people, indeed, we can all agree they don’t deserve to be abused, tortured, or worse.
Getting nabbed for vagrancy or shoplifting shouldn’t be a death sentence! However, in Pennsylvania and other states across the nation, countless men and women face cruel and life-threatening medical negligence from captors with little or no accountability.
According to Prison Policy Initiative, 37 percent of people incarcerated in state & federal institutions have been diagnosed with a mental illness. That percentage jumps to 44 percent in local institutions. The numbers are even higher for women – nearly 70% of current female prison populations across the country suffer a mental illness or disability.
It gets worse. For inmates with serious mental health issues like Bipolar, PTSD, and Schizophrenia, more than 2/3rds are receiving inadequate treatment – or none at all – often denied vital medications (or deliberately given the wrong ones). Imagine feeling your sense of reality slipping, your emotions flying out of control, and there’s nothing you can do. No wonder suicide has been a leading cause of death in US jails since 2000.
According to Human Rights Watch, these prisoners are likely to experience verbal and physical abuse by prison staff and cellmates without proper mental health care. Inmates who cannot control themselves because of their mental health issues are often punished with solitary confinement, torture, but even more inhumane when the victim’s behavior is a direct result of medical neglect.
In 1997, a mentally ill male, Anthony McManus, publicly exposed himself and wound up in a Michigan prison with no psychiatric facilities. He deteriorated rapidly into schizophrenic psychosis, fixating on the devil and soiling his cell. The untrained staff could only think to throw him in solitary and withhold food & water until he’d comply. He weighed 75 pounds when he died in 2005 from emaciation/dehydration. His is not an isolated case.
Thousands of cognitively sick/impaired inmates have died horrible deaths in prisons across the country: Charlton Chrisman pepper-sprayed, hooded, shackled, and beaten to death in Oklahoma County Jail. Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran and alleged trespasser who baked to death in his Rikers Island jail cell. In Louisiana, David O’Quin (suffering a paranoid episode) was picked up for disturbing the peace, then beaten bloody and restrained for hours in his excrement; he succumbed to a bacterial infection soon after.
These people didn’t have to die if their symptoms were managed with the proper treatment. As ugly as the mental health crisis is in our country’s Prison System, the degree of medical malpractice for severe and often infectious conditions is genuinely astonishing.
Hepatitis C is a deadly but curable liver disease affecting about 1/3rd of incarcerated populations. Yet, there’s no Federal policy or protocol for handling these cases. Prevention and diagnosis are additional hurdles. For Mumia Abu-Jamal (serving life for perhaps one of the most well-known cases in Philly’s history), routine blood work indicated he was positive for HepC antibodies — which should’ve flagged him for further testing. Instead, they didn’t tell him!
For the next three years, a persistent rash grew to cover 70% of his body, and eventually, he was rushed to the hospital in diabetic shock (a known risk with HepC). For weeks, prison doctors had documented dangerously high blood sugar levels, which they left untreated until the situation became critical. Abu-Jamal could’ve died.
Instead, he came out of the hospital informed about his Hepatitis C status and determined to fight for his life. It took five long months for SCI Mahanoy Correctional Facility to administer the test needed to diagnose his condition correctly. All the while, the virus wreaked havoc with his body: his skin crawled, his muscles ached, he couldn’t sleep or get comfortable, he lost his sense of concentration and emotional keel.
In 2017, he sued the state and won his right to medical treatment. “This isn’t just about the pain and suffering of one man… this is about tens of thousands of human beings denied a treatment that would not only end their immeasurable suffering, but save countless lives,” said Mumia Abu-Jamal during a short phone conversation from his cell block. “A system that callously denied them a treatment that would cure them.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has adopted CDC guidelines for treating Hepatitis C with antiviral medications that provide a 90–95% cure rate. We all benefit from efforts to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Most of these inmates will return to society – indeed, it’s in our best interest if they’re free from dangerous pathogens. Yet only 3% of prisoners with Hepatitis C are being treated.
Even with Mumia’s legal teams and media access, he had to fight long and hard for his fundamental right to healthcare. What chance do the untold thousands suffering the effects of mental and physical neglect while incarcerated?
“Hundreds of thousands of people in the prison system of the U.S. are denied medical treatment every day for deadly and chronic illnesses, this is torture and murder for the sake of profit plain and simple,” said Pam Africa, a longtime Mumia advocate and Human Rights Activist in Philadelphia.
The carceral system in the U.S. is a profit-making business. From state and private-run institutions housing our brothers and sisters to companies like Corizon, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, etc., regularly put profit ahead of the well-being of those in their care.
In Chatham County Detention Center between 2014 and 2016, Corizon oversaw a system that routinely had prescription drugs missing. Denying patients deemed gravely ill by their doctors the hospitalization they needed failed to treat patients with severe mental health problems. The facility went long stretches without a doctor on-site and had only one Psychiatrist for the 400 people incarcerated with mental health issues.
More than 60 percent of U.S. jail outsource health care to companies like Corizon, including Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and other carceral institutions in the Philadelphia Prison System.
Human life and dignity mean nothing in these institutions. The bottom line is king to their investors and the politicians they own.
“A lot of people are dying, and they’ve never been sentenced, that’s obviously a huge problem,” said Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and inhuman punishment. “You have to provide due process; you have to provide humane detention conditions and you have to provide medical care.”
No one should be profiting from the suffering of other human beings; it is time we ended this for-profit medical care system inside America’s jails and prisons!
If you are interested in learning more about prison conditions, check out The Human Rights Coalition or Black Philly Radical Collective. Both groups are doing fantastic organizing around issues of incarceration.