It is becoming more and more common to hear the sentiment, “People with mental illness need treatment, not jail time,” from policy makers, correctional administrators, legislators and even members of the general public.
Mentally ill prisoners need treatment. Not tear gas.
As treatment and awareness of the many mental illnesses that plague our family members and community members increases, our society is increasingly accepting of the fact that maybe, just maybe, people with serious mental illnesses, as well as mental disabilities, recover and reintegrate into our communities more effectively with therapeutic treatment (or even forensic hospitalization), rather than standard incarceration.
Unfortunately, the painful truth is that our prisons and jails currently are full of people with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Even those individuals who enter correctional facilities without mental illness are very likely to leave with PTSD, trauma, social anxiety and depression. Individuals behind bars in Utah are a very vulnerable population.
Many Utahns aren’t aware of a particularly disturbing incident at the Utah State Prison, from way back in 2011, when tear gas was deployed against a single inmate in an outdoor courtyard. The tear gas seeped into the ventilation system of the prison’s Olympus wing. The Olympus wing houses prisoners with mental illness, as well as those with serious medical conditions.
Today, nearly five years after that tear gas canister was released in the Olympus wing, the ACLU of Utah is in court as part of a long-running lawsuit brought in response to the incident.
Litigation on cases like this one is long, complicated and difficult. But it is critically important that groups like the ACLU of Utah, with support from private attorneys like Karra Porter (our co-counsel on this case), continue to show up for vulnerable populations.
We at the ACLU of Utah heard detailed accounts of the tear gas incident directly from the impacted inmates. Their letters described how tear gas seeped into their cells, which have no windows or bars, and how they were left to breathe the noxious fumes for approximately 20 minutes.
Many feared for their lives. Prisoners allege that their panicked use of emergency call buttons were ignored by correctional officers, some of whom allegedly made light of their fear and panic.
This tear-gassing incident, the prisoners’ terrified reaction to it, and what we believe was the problematic response from the system which is intended to rehabilitate them, highlights the extreme vulnerability of prisoners, in general, and mentally ill and disabled inmates in particular.
As we work to reduce mass incarceration in our nation, we can’t forget the everyday realities of the people who are already behind bars. And we cannot overlook the humanity of individuals who are struggling with mental illness, especially when we systemically incarcerate instead of offering adequate treatment.