Cruel and Unusual – It’s Time to End an American Tragedy

MAY. 12, 2015

By Ron Honberg

Human Rights Watch released a report today, Callous and Cruel, that describes in chilling detail the degree to which “unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force” is used in jails and prisons throughout the U.S. to control inmates with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. 

Report cover: image of Paul Schlosser III, being pepper sprayed in
a screenshot from video of the incident via: Human Rights Watch

For some inmates with mental illness, these abusive tactics result in serious injuries or even death.  In virtually all cases, these tactics cause extreme psychological distress and often a worsening of symptoms that leave individuals unable to function in correctional settings and wholly unprepared to successfully reenter communities after incarceration.

Human Rights Watch engaged in extensive review of court cases and interviewed more than 125 current and former correctional officials and a variety of experts in compiling its report.  The report documents use of tactics against individuals with serious mental illness such as spraying them with painful chemicals, shocking them with electric stun guns, and strapping people in restraint chairs or beds for days at a time.   It also documents severe physical beatings that have resulted in serious injuries or deaths.

Long term solitary confinement or other forms of “administrative segregation” are used frequently to control and manage inmates with serious mental illness.  It is well established that long term isolation causes severe psychological distress with individuals who do not have pre-existing mental illness.   For people with pre-existing mental illness, long term isolation can be akin to torture.  

How did we get to this shameful point in our history?   The answer is not hard to find.   It is well known that the lack of appropriate mental health services and supports has contributed significantly to the “criminalization” of people with serious mental illness. 

Jails and prisons have been characterized as “de-facto” mental health treatment facilities.  However, this term is a misnomer.  Jails and prisons are designed to punish people, not treat them.  And, correctional officers, who have very difficult and stressful jobs, are not trained to de-escalate psychiatric crises.  In these settings, the response to any sort of aberrant behavior is typically punitive, not therapeutic.

The report contains a number of policy recommendations for improving the response to individuals with serious mental illness who are incarcerated, including:

  • Ensuring that jails and prisons adopt policies and standards pertaining to the use of force, including alternative strategies for addressing the “unique needs and vulnerabilities of prisoners with mental disabilities.”   One option that should be strongly considered is CIT for Corrections, a program that trains correctional officers on how to de-escalate crises and prevent the use of force.  These have been adopted in several states, including Indiana, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
  • Prohibit the use of solitary confinement for persons with serious mental illness and other mental disabilities who are confined in jails and prisons.  Certain states have moved in this direction, including Maine, Colorado and Mississippi.  
  • Reduce the numbers of people with serious mental illness who are incarcerated in jails and prisons. 

Ultimately, the best way to address this tragedy is by eliminating the unnecessary incarceration of people with serious mental illness who need treatment and services, not punishment.  There is currently legislation pending in Congress that could help.   The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act (S. 933 in the Senate, HR 1854 in the House of Representatives) would provide resources to communities and states for law enforcement and correctional training, jail diversion and community reentry programs.  You can advocate for passage of this important legislation by taking action on

NAMI is also engaged in a new project called Stepping Up with the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, the American Psychiatric Foundation, the Major Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement and mental health organizations.  The goal of the Stepping Up initiative is to reduce the incarceration of people with serious mental illness in jails throughout the U.S.

The “Cruel and Unusual” report is a vivid and disturbing expose of how shamefully we have neglected people with serious mental illness in the U.S. We would never tolerate such neglect of people with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s Disease.  It is time to stop this shameful mistreatment and respond to people with mental illness with respect and compassion.

Ron Honberg, J.D. serves as the National Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mr. Honberg oversees NAMI's federal advocacy agenda and NAMI's work on legal and criminal justice issues. Follow Ron Honberg @NAMIPolicyWonk.


APR, 13, 2017 04:05:27 PM
These are my thoughts on law enforcement and department of corrections.We must make all that are involved accountable for there decisions and actions. This being from the very top to the very bottom. No one is above or below the law period. The mis treatment of mentally ill or the disabled by any dept. of state, county, federal gov. Is just very wrong.... I know first hand about not being in control of one self at times and no we can't chose. Loud noses,smells, and even in DRs exam room caused me to lose control of my anger these are a few of my triggers. But when I tried to walk away and decompress I was followed. This just made it worse for me. You could follow if at a distance but don't keep asking questions or talking. I don't go that fare usually this is one of the ways we are taught in therapie to deal with the situation,counting, R.E.M. And there are a lot more tricks we learn to help us with P.T.S.D. When we have flash backs or just because of the stress through out are daily life.

MAY, 29, 2015 10:16:06 AM
Betty Kendrick
I read the article. It took me back to when my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 25. I can't begin to stress how much I was at a lost when my son was first diagnosed with this bipolar disorder. I really did not know anything about bipolar disorder until about two years later when I went back to school. I took a psychology class; this is when I learned about all the different kings of mental disorders. Back to my story. Before my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder he was living a normal life. He had a government security clearance job. He had his own nice apartment with everything seeming to be going fine for him. Prior to this, he had served three years in the navy. To make a long story short, before being diagnosed not knowing what was going on with himself, not sharing with the family his feelings at the time about anything going on physically o r mentally with him so we had no idea that he was going through any mental issue. He would visit every weekend but he would not stay very long. Some conversation that we would engage in would end up with him being more excitable than usual (this may have been a clue). He was missing for one full week. Because of the security clearance job that he had, his employer was just as interested in finding him as we were as parents. He was listed as John Doe in the hospital. What landed him in the hospital was that he had gone into a business establishment and attacked a total stranger. The policemen came to arrest him but he was so out of his mind that they had to restrain him. Because of his injuries during the arrest, this is when he was taken to the hospital and was listed as John Doe because he had left his apartment without any identification. I agree totally that the law is not set up to judge mental illness people who have had no prior record of any misconduct. Even the doctors in the hospital realized that something else was going on in his being and that he was not a criminal. Nevertheless, he was judged by the law. He spent two weeks in jail before we got this lawyer who also did not have a clue. My son spent all of his saving during the court ordeal; he was put on probation for four years, not able to get a job until five years later; the work that he has obtained is nothing like the previously employment because now he has a record. The is so much more to a story when you are dealing with someone who has committed a crime because of mental illness.....I will stop here.

MAY, 28, 2015 01:44:42 PM
I am bipolar and my husband broke my hip then threatened me to keep quiet. I called the police on him when he said he was going to kill me, he just told the police that I was a nut and bipolar. The burden shifted to me and the cops questioned me about taking my medications. They also said they could not arrest him on such vague charges. There are some people who belong in jail and I believe my husband suffers from a mental illness himself ....but you can't let people go around abusing other people. I have to agree with Andrea.

MAY, 23, 2015 01:23:52 PM
lecia c burton
My friends probation was revoked and placed in a medical prison after he had been off his shot for 8 months. Cant say he was treated badly there cause they got him on med and got him straightened out. But at the diagnostic facility (prison) they put him in "hole" twice for 28 days.not bothering to get his med in him. Theres s lot of people that believe if a person has a mental illness theyll automatically do harm. NOTTRUE! He just had Ideas.

MAY, 20, 2015 12:19:16 PM
Kyle Lloyd
Can anyone point out the 'justice' served in these accounts? SPEAK UP, I can't hear you!!!

MAY, 17, 2015 07:45:29 PM
Mike Glover
Our states Governor (Iowa) is attempting to close down 2 of our 4 mental health institutions. By law we are supposed to have 4 but he decided to shut them down anyway. I work in a state prison here and we know those who are going to be denied mental health treatment will be residents of ours.

We have had some training dealing with mentally ill inmates but by no means are we equipped to handle that many more. It's shameful.

MAY, 13, 2015 02:49:04 PM
Leah Berry
It is sickening the way mental health patients are treated in jail. A lot of them are there for very minor offenses (such as a traffic ticket) but are treated as though they are violent and dangerous offenders and even placed in the same cell blocks with those type offenders who often attack or threaten to attack them. In addition, most of them are on the types of medications that if withheld for more than a couple of days will begin having seizures and other major and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, not to mention a major set back in their mental health care and ability to recover. It's shameful, inhumane and uncalled for!

MAY, 13, 2015 12:01:20 PM
Laurel McClure
Incarceration of the mentally ill rather than treatment of their illness is inhumane and reprehensible. It is a tremendous mis allocation of public funds: money that should be used to provide healthcare is instead diverted to prisons. What a miscarriage of justice!

MAY, 13, 2015 11:58:40 AM
Jane Luna
I live in Tennessee and my son had Schizoaffective and was killed by the correction officers at Riverbend Prison in 2010 His name was Charles Jason Toll. His story is on the internet and still fighting for justice. Why are the officers above the law.

MAY, 13, 2015 10:42:14 AM
Shaun Schroeder
I am a social worker level BSW, I hate the way we see mental illness in our country as it is. The prisons should just have criminals, not mentally ill or drug addicted people. Bottom line! Our governor closing the only places where some mentally ill have to go; where do you think they will end up!!!

MAY, 13, 2015 10:40:30 AM
Lisa Pressley
Being a former Sheriff's Deputy myself, I can say that yes there are times when the mentally handicapped are dealt with harshly due to the action they are showing and the fact that it is hard to subdue them. However, people with mental illness should not even be in the corrections domain. They should be in mental health facilities which are few and far between. We need less jails and more mental health facilities. I will also add that when it is determined the type of person the officers are dealing with they do everything in their power to NOT hurt the mentally ill.

MAY, 13, 2015 07:50:29 AM
Todd Kuikka
This is something that was not tracked until recently. BJS and NCJS started tracking around 2005. It has been found that well over half of those incarcerated in the U.S. meet the criteria for mentally ill and have a history. Over half of those are considered chemically dependent or abusive (usually due to untreated mental illness). The ongoing criminalization of mentally ill has to find a balance. Local programs are being driven to provide care for inmates but is direly lacking, as those locked up are subjected to further compounding anxieties that feed symptoms. v/r Todd M. Kuikka

MAY, 13, 2015 05:47:40 AM
Lee Reeder
When I was living near Chicago there was something started in DuPage County called MICAP as this deals with people that have mental illness. I have biploar depression myself & I've been lucky where I have the support of a loving family. Going into a jail cell wouldn't be easy for anyone especially someone with SMI (Serious Mental Illness) as other addictions may be invovled as we need to find ways to keep people with a mental illness if charged with a non-violent crime seperate from the rest of the jail population knowing how violent some people can become.

MAY, 12, 2015 10:34:41 PM
Angel Clark
I am also a victim of police brutality. I was over medicated & experienced physcosis two years ago. Medication made me worse not better - I am no longer taking any medicine for mental health. Thank God!... Police were called to my home to do a wellness check. I was sleeping @ the time - suddenly woken by two police officers who arrested me in my living room. Hand cuffed both hands & feet. I was terrified because of my mental state of who they were & where they were going to take me. When I tried getting out of the police car with handcuffs on both my feet & hands, I could barely stand bc of the cuffs- they laughed! I was then taken by gurney - now with a spit mask over my head. Somehow I got loose from the feet restraints- I accidentally kicked one of the police officers in the groin. I was charged with a felony for that. I am now serving 2 yrs. probation - an agreement of the DPA. I am a college professor. I have my masters degree in mental health. These police did absolutely no de-esculating at all. Our system as I have learned is corrupt & inhuman to say it nicely. I am the victim & they are the criminals! Police given too much athority with little or No mental health training. I even teach in prisons - I developed a class 15 yrs. ago. To the day I die I will fight this injustice. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I also am married to a professional & have two very intelligent children. My oldest is planning to go in to law school after he finishes his undergrad.! Wow! What a pethtic message this is to my poor children too!

MAY, 12, 2015 08:15:51 PM
HAVING Bipolar disorder myself, and working with the forensic population of the hospital that I work in, I see some of these clients you speak of. I can assure you, I know none of these particular peopls, but many of these "poor" individuals with whom you are speaking about are little more than sociopaths and I hate to be the person to say it to society but there is no cure for sociopathic behaviof. So this video of this "poor defenseless " man, he's probably tried to attack multiple guards, bite then, spit in their faces, and or has gone after their weapon and is out of control. Think it doesn't happen? It does. Why myself, I've had two concussions once from being punched in the forehead when I turned around to check on a client, and the second one when I was assisting a client away from a psychiatrist, she didn't like that, she took her right fist and drove it into my right temple. Or the time that a patient didn't like that I told him "no". He proceeded to jump over the 1/2 door to get at me and told me explicitly that he was going to kill me and bash my *****ing head in. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but these clients all carry the diagnosis of sociopaths. Point in case.

MAY, 12, 2015 08:08:04 PM
Actually I've read that the prisons use ad-seg for even the smallest infractions. Prisons are torturous abusive places. They over use the punishment. Guards are often bullies & narcisstic. And thats to all prisoners the Guards deem that they don't like.

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