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May 16, 2012

"The Ninth Circle of Hell: An Eighth Amendment Analysis of Imposing Prolonged Supermax Solitary Confinement on Inmates with a Mental Illness"

The title of this post is the title of this piece available via SSRN authored by Thomas Hafemeister and Jeff George.  Here is the abstract:

The increasing number of inmates with a mental disorder in America’s prison population and the inadequacy of their treatment and housing conditions have been issues of growing significance in recent years.  The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that “over one and a quarter million people suffering from mental health problems are in prisons or jails, a figure that constitutes nearly sixty percent of the total incarcerated population in the United States.”  Furthermore, a person suffering from a mental illness in the United States is three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, with as many as forty percent of those who suffer from a mental illness coming into contact with the criminal justice system every year and police officers almost twice as likely to arrest someone who appears to have a mental illness.  As a result, the United States penal system has become the nation’s largest provider of mental health services, a “tragic consequence of inadequate community mental health services combined with punitive criminal justice policies.”

This growth in the number of inmates with a mental disorder, combined with the recent rise of prolonged supermax solitary confinement and the increasingly punitive nature of the American penological system, has resulted in a disproportionately large number of inmates with a mental disorder being housed in supermax confinement.  The harsh restrictions of this confinement often significantly exacerbate these inmates’ mental disorders or otherwise cause significant additional harm to their mental health, and preclude proper mental health treatment.  Given the exacerbating conditions associated with supermax settings, this setting is not only ill-suited to the penological problems posed by the growing number of these inmates, but intensifies these problems by creating a revolving door to supermax confinement for many such inmates who may be unable to conform their behavior within the prison environment.

Housing inmates with a mental disorder in prolonged supermax solitary confinement deprives them of a minimal life necessity as this setting poses a significant risk to their basic level of mental health, a need “as essential to human existence as other basic physical demands . . . .”, and thereby meets the objective element required for an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claim.  In addition, placing such inmates in supermax confinement constitutes deliberate indifference to their needs as this setting subjects this class of readily identifiable and vulnerable inmates to a present and known risk by knowingly placing them in an environment that is uniquely toxic to their condition, thereby satisfying the subjective element needed for an Eighth Amendment claim. Whether it is called torture, a violation of evolving standards of human decency, or cruel and unusual punishment, truly “a risk this grave — this shocking and indecent — simply has no place in civilized society.”

May 16, 2012 at 05:12 PM | Permalink

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