Gassing mentally ill inmates must stop

Spinnaker

Guards at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Northwest Florida shut off the water to inmate Danny Brown’s cell at 3 p.m. June 11, 2002. At the same time, guards outside taped the window so nothing could escape – including Brown. Then the guards released chemical gasses into the cell.

Brown, a bi-polar inmate, suffered an asthma attack, breathing difficulties and mental and emotional pain from the gassing, according to the lawsuit he filed the following year with 21 other prisoners at the correctional institution.

The prisoners and their families were outraged by the use of pepper spray, tear gas and other chemical agents used by prison guards – often specifically targeting mentally ill inmates.

And five years later, nothing has changed.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan was given the task last week to decide the constitutionality of gassing mentally ill inmates in Florida State Prison, after seven inmates filed a lawsuit against the prison in 2004.

Though it should only take a second for someone to realize this practice violates the Eighth Amendment of cruel and unusual punishment, Corrigan thinks the task should not take more than a week to complete, he said in a Times-Union report.

Lawyers for the prison argued the practice is only used to keep the prisoners under control and that each instance is “unique,” according to the article.

However, it is not the instance, but the inmates who are unique, each suffering from various mental illnesses.

A report released in November 2007 by Judge Steven Leifman, co-chair of 11th judicial court’s mental health committee, stated the Florida Department of Corrections houses more than 90,000 inmates, but only has close to 500 cells designed for mentally ill inmates.

With just one space available to hold a mentally ill inmate to every 180 inmates in the system, hundreds of inmates are being passed through to facilities that can’t handle them and guards who don’t acknowledge their outbursts as symptoms of their illnesses.

By throwing the majority of mentally ill inmates into the general population of prisoners, the Florida prison system is handing its guards prisons filled to the brim with utter chaos.

If these same inmates were placed in prisons that were designed to handle mentally ill prisoners – with counselors and physicians on staff – they would receive appropriate treatments and medicine for their behaviors, not body scorching gas.

But faced with chaos, guards have referred to quick, easy and inhumane practices that have been used for centuries.

The Nazis were a proponent for the cruel practice, dispensing chemical gasses on thousands of mentally ill prisoners during the first stage of their regime.

The Florida guards seem to share in the belief that the inmates are defective and a burden to their society.

Social reformist Dorothea Dix fought this misplaced belief in the 1800s when she advocated for change in the prison systems.

And her cry echoes louder today.

Gassing mentally ill inmates is unconstitutional, and Corrigan should follow through with banning the practice in Florida prisons.

Guards should not be medicating the illnesses of inmates with a cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, they need to address each unique inmate.

But this won’t happen until the Florida prison system provides adequate staff and space to treat prisoners with a mental illness.

E-mail Holli Welch at [email protected]