Mutilation of Tennessee inmate highlights mental care issues at prison

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee death row inmate Henry Hodges’ fellow inmate Jon Hall warned long ago that he was at risk due to gross negligence by prison authorities, having spent three decades in solitary confinement with very little contact or interaction. human.

In a federal lawsuit Hall filed in 2019 complaining that he, too, had been in solitary for nearly six years with no viable way to leave, he said of Hodges: “He’s suffered the most unnecessary (sic) adverse things.” and wanton neglect, deprivation, & mistreatment I’ve seen on death row. It’s a miracle he didn’t commit suicide.”

The warning went unheeded and last month, Hodges cut off his penis during what his lawyer called a “psychiatric disorder.”

Hodges’ self-mutilation was an extreme but not unprecedented incident in US penitentiaries: Texas inmate Andre Thomas gouged out his eye five days after his 2004 arrest for murdering his wife and children, and while he was on death row in 2009, he removed his remaining eye and told prison officials that he ate it.

While most cases fall short of those grisly examples, they underscore the significant, growing, and unmet needs for inmates’ mental health care.

A study published last year by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics that collected data from 2016 found that 41% of federal and state prisoners reported a history of mental illness, and 13% had experienced severe psychological distress. during the previous 30 days. Among the latter group, only 41% of state prisoners said they were currently receiving some type of mental health treatment. The treatment rate for federal prisoners was even lower, at just 26%.

“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 for decades.

Without sufficient resources to care for mentally ill prisoners, the sickest are sometimes treated with punitive measures, such as solitary confinement, which only exacerbate the problem.

In Tennessee, Hall’s lawsuit pointed to the vicious cycle he was facing.

“To be released from solitary confinement you must be psychologically healthy, but the conditions of your confinement cause you psychological harm and the lack of psychological treatment means that you cannot recover sufficiently to be released from solitary confinement,” Hall’s lawyers wrote.

The Tennessee Department of Correction’s annual report shows that the number of inmates classified as having a “serious and persistent mental illness” increased from about 5% of the population in 2002 to nearly 23% in 2022. other mental illnesses.

Questions abound about whether the state is doing enough to deal with the crisis.

Tennessee’s Centurion, which won a $123 million, five-year contract in 2020 to manage state prison mental health services, has been accused by rival Corizon of colluding with corrections officials to rig the bid. A lawsuit was settled out of court, and the Department of Correction said in May 2021 that it would re-bid the contract. Until last week, one had not been awarded.

Meanwhile, a state comptroller audit in January 2020 found that both Centurion, which has managed medical services since 2013, and Corizon were unable to consistently meet contractually required staffing levels. The audit also found problems with medical documentation.

“We were unable to locate mental health assessments for all inmates with documented mental health conditions in our sample; medical staff did not always include medical orders in patient files; we were unable to locate mental health treatment plans for all inmates with documented mental health conditions in our sample,” the audit says.

The Department of Correction blamed record-keeping problems on a cumbersome system of paper records. The department called the transition to electronic medical records a “top priority” in 2020, but last week said it is still developing a request for proposals and has not determined when it will come out.

The department said the staff vacancies did not affect inmate care because shifts were typically filled by other staff members.

Haney, the psychology professor, said Hodges probably wouldn’t care if Tennessee prisons had the best mental health care in the world while he was locked up. It is well established that even short periods of solitary confinement are detrimental to a person’s mental health, he said.

“What is a therapist going to do if, after an hour, they put you back in an empty cell where you are going to stay 23 hours a day?” he said.

When inmates are isolated for weeks, they can lose touch with reality and do things that are inexplicable in any other context, Haney continued. “As human beings, we depend on connections and contact with other people. When you take that away, it becomes very destabilizing.”

Hodges was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of a telephone repairman and was immediately placed in solitary confinement. Before mutilating himself on October 7, his behavior escalated for several days. Hodges went from smearing feces on the wall of his cell to slashing one of his wrists with a razor, according to court documents. When they took him to the infirmary, he asked to go on suicide watch. But after a couple of hours he was back in a cell where he used a razor again, this time to cut off his penis.

After being released from the hospital, Hodges was returned to the infirmary. There he was kept naked and restrained by his arms and legs on a thin mattress on a concrete slab in a room lit 24 hours a day, with no mental stimulation such as radio or television, his lawyer said in a lawsuit filed in October. 28. He compared his treatment to torture and said that he violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorneys for the state defended Hodges’ treatment at a hearing the same day, with Assistant Attorney General Scott Sutherland arguing that he was receiving “24-hour care.”

Nashville Chancellor I’Ashea Myles ordered the Department of Corrections to provide better care, including providing Hodges with clothing and mental stimulation.

Hodges’ lawyer is trying to transfer him to the Middle Tennessee Institute of Mental Health. A preliminary injunction hearing in his case is scheduled for November 28.

Meanwhile, his fellow prisoners continue to worry. Hall filed a complaint on his behalf on October 13 requesting that Hodges receive special relief from prolonged solitary confinement. “After thirty years of sensory deprivation confinements, he has deprived that man of his sanity,” Hall wrote.

The complaint was dismissed as inappropriate, with the unit manager writing that Hall was not an official advocate for inmates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *