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Inmate Mental Illness Rates Are High, Risking Severe Neglect

Tennessee death row inmate Henry Hodges' fellow prisoner Jon Hall warned long ago he was at risk for severe neglect by prison authorities after spending three decades in solitary confinement with little human contact. The warning went unheeded, and last month Hodges cut off his own penis during a "psychiatric disturbance." Hodges's self-mutilation is an extreme case, but not without precedent: Texas inmate Andre Thomas plucked out one of his eyes five days after murdering his wife and children. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says that as of 2016, 41 percent of federal and state prisoners reported a history of mental illness, and 13 percent had experienced serious psychological distress. The treatment rate for federal prisoners was lower, at 26 percent. “Our prisons are not set up to provide mental health care, and they don’t do it very well,” said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the effects of solitary confinement. Without enough resources to care for mentally ill prisoners, the sickest are sometimes treated with punitive measures, like solitary confinement, that only exacerbate the problem. Hodges’ attorney is trying to get him transferred to the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute, the Associated Press reports.

The Tennessee Department of Correction annual report shows that the number of inmates categorized as having a "serious or persistent mental illness" rose from around five percent of the population to nearly 23 percent in 2022. Haney said it likely wouldn’t matter for Hodges if Tennessee prisons had the best mental health care in the world as long as he remained in lockdown. He said it is well established that even short periods of solitary confinement are detrimental to mental health. When inmates are isolated for weeks, they can become “out of touch with reality and do things that are inexplicable in any other context,” Haney said. “We’re dependent as human beings on connections to and contact with other people. When you take that away, it becomes very destabilizing.” Hodges was sentenced to die in 1992 for the murder of a telephone repairman and was immediately put in solitary confinement. His behavior escalated after several days. He went from smearing feces on his cell wall to slitting one of his wrists with a razor. When Hodges was returned to the infirmary, he was kept naked and restrained by his arms and legs on a thin mattress over a concrete slab in a room that was lit 24 hours a day, with no mental stimulation such as a radio or television, his attorney said in a lawsuit.


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