Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sick policy: Gassing mentally ill inmates

When federal Judge Timothy J. Corrigan ruled three weeks ago that spraying mentally ill inmates with skin-blistering chemicals violates the Constitution's ban against cruel and unusual punishment, it seemed that Florida might finally put an end to a horrible, unnecessary practice. Instead, the state is fighting the ruling. The rationale? Two of the inmates have now been transferred to a safer facility. Meanwhile, the shameful practice of using pepper spray to subdue mentally ill inmates for misbehaving continues at Florida State Prison.
Poignant video report

In his ruling, Judge Corrigan asked that the Department of Corrections and Attorney General Bill McCollum work with lawyers for the plaintiffs to resolve the issue and report back to him by Feb. 10. Instead, the state filed a response saying: ''Past exposure to alleged illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy regarding injunctive relief.'' In other words: Evidence of past alleged illegal conduct is no proof of current activities that warrant the court's sanction.

An investigative report in November 2007 by WFOR-CBS4, The Miami Herald's television partner, showed how guards at the prison blasted inmates with pepper spray because they refused to stop yelling or banging on the cell doors. The report shows how a thick cloud of the spray quickly fills an inmate's tiny cell, rendering him helpless. To see CBS4's online video report, go to http://cbs4.com/iteam/gasprisons.james.2.592189.html.

Judge Corrigan found that the spraying was inappropriate for two inmates who, because of their mental illness, did not understand the guards' orders to stop screaming and banging on the cell door. He found that four other mentally ill inmates who were sprayed did have the capacity to understand the orders.

In practice, this is a distinction without a difference. Medication, or the lack of it, is often the biggest determinant in whether an inmates behaves or not. Besides, medication often wears out before another dose is given. At nearby Union Correctional Institution, when mentally ill inmates act out, mental-health counselors are called in to calm them so that they can understand the instructions. Spraying isn't allowed.

Judge's fair ruling

During the 1990s, Florida State Prison also had a no-spray policy, but that changed in 1999 when James Crosby became the warden and began spraying scores of inmates. Crosby later was convicted of taking kickbacks, but his policy of spraying sick inmates continues. Judge Corrigan's ruling is an opening for the state to adopt policies that are more humane and more effective for handling mentally ill inmates.

The state should stop fighting the judge and stop spraying sick inmates.

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