Severely Mentally Ill Prisoners Routinely Pepper-Sprayed And Denied Health Care

A report by Disability Rights Oregon has found that prisoners in the Behavioral Health Unit at the State Penitentiary are routinely tasered, pepper-sprayed, isolated, and denied access to adequate mental health care.

Disability Rights Oregon is authorized by the federal government to protect the legal rights of people with disabilities here.

For it's report, it toured the Behavioral Health Unit, reviewed hours of video and interviewed 19 prisoners.

Disability Rights found one prisoner who was so troubled by spending 23 hours a day in his cell, he started harming himself.

He wasn't identified in the report. But Disability Rights says his hope was to be sent to the hospital or the prison's Mental Health Infirmary, because he thought staff there were more sympathetic and delivered better care.

He told correctional staff many times he was in crisis, but with little response and no result. Eventually he was told, "You have to get pepper sprayed to go [to the hospital or infirmary]."

So he hung a sheet across the front of his cell.

Prisoners aren't allowed to do that. And when he wouldn't remove it, officers in riot gear sprayed him, pulled him out and transferred him to the infirmary. He can be heard on video saying, “That’s all I wanted in the first place.”

Sarah Radcliffe, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon, said such stories highlight the ugly effects solitary confinement can have on a mentally ill person. "So they're in small cells with no access to fresh air or natural light for 23 hours a day and sometimes more."

"We found that access to showers and exercise was very limited, even though they're supposed to be entitled to those two things at the very least," she added.

The Disability Rights report also found that security staff consistently ignore the advice of mental health staff and instead handle mental crises with tasers, restraint chairs and "psychological torment."

"Prisoners in this unit are subjected to frequent unnecessary use of force, by staff, often in response to behaviors that are related to their mental illnesses," said Radcliffe.Disability Rights has three main recommendations: That prisoners be allowed out of their cells for a minimum of five hours a day; that there be a 30-minute cooling-down period before a prisoner is forcibly removed from his cell; and that there be enough resources for mental health staff to regularly observe prisoners and meet with them in a confidential setting.

"I can't really speak to specific actions that we are going to take, but they are definitely things that we are considering," said Steve Robbins, who's responsible for overseeing mental health care at the Department of Corrections.

He said their resources are limited, but the department will consider the recommendations.

However, he was not convinced about problems between security and mental health staff. "Security plays as big a role as our mental health staff in actually helping to de-escalate."He gave this example: "We had a situation where one of these inmates actually successfully stabbed one of our security staff members. Once that person healed and was back at work, he actually sat down with this inmate and worked through the behaviors and talked through these things."

One of the Department of Corrections' major complaints about the report is that no security staff were interviewed. Disability Rights says it will try to interview security staff -- and issue a supplementary report if warranted.

Currently there are about 37 inmates in the Behavioral Health Unit.  Their crimes range from robbery to the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

Twenty-two of the inmates have some type of assault conviction as part of their current custody cycle. "These are folks that have a history of when they are in public places with other people, people get hurt," said Robbins.

OPB asked to visit the unit after the Disability Rights report was released, but the request was denied.

The Department of Corrections cited a rule that "generally" does not permit media access to special housing units.

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