« Notable account of Acting AG Matt Whitaker's sentencing work as US Attorney in Iowa | Main | So very thankful this year that so very many voices on the political right are actively advocating for criminal justice reforms »

November 21, 2018

Investigation of BOP treatment of mental health issues highlights challenge of reforming federal prisons

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this new Marshall Project report headlined "Treatment Denied: The Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons." Among other important messages, this story highlights that formal prison reforms in legislation like the FIRST STEP Act have to be followed by functional work by prison officials in order to be fully efficacious.  Here are excerpts from this story:

In 2014, amid mounting criticism and legal pressure, the Federal Bureau of Prisons imposed a new policy promising better care and oversight for inmates with mental-health issues. But data obtained by The Marshall Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that instead of expanding treatment, the bureau has lowered the number of inmates designated for higher care levels by more than 35 percent.  Increasingly, prison staff are determining that prisoners — some with long histories of psychiatric problems — don’t require any routine care at all.

As of February, the Bureau of Prisons classified just 3 percent of inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment.  By comparison, more than 30 percent of those incarcerated in California state prisons receive care for a “serious mental disorder.”  In New York, 21 percent of inmates are on the mental-health caseload. Texas prisons provide treatment for roughly 20 percent.

A review of court documents and inmates’ medical records, along with interviews of former prison psychologists, revealed that although the Bureau of Prisons changed its rules, officials did not add the resources needed to implement them, creating an incentive for employees to downgrade inmates to lower care levels.

In an email, the bureau confirmed that mental-health staffing has not increased since the policy took effect.  The bureau responded to questions from a public information office email account and declined to identify any spokesperson for this article.  “You doubled the workload and kept the resources the same. You don’t have to be Einstein to see how that’s going to work,” said a former Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending lawsuit regarding his time at the agency.

The bureau said it is “developing a strategy” to analyze this drop in mental-health care, consistent with a Justice Department inspector general’s recommendation last year. Although only a small fraction of federal inmates are deemed ill enough to merit regular therapy, officials acknowledged that 23 percent have been diagnosed with some mental illness....

Data analyzed by The Marshall Project shows that the average monthly rate of assault across all federal prisons increased 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, the last full year available. Most of those incidents were not classified as serious assaults — defined by the bureau as likely to cause death or serious injury — which have declined in recent years, even before the mental-health policy change in 2014. In several recent in-prison homicides, records suggest that either the alleged attacker or victim wasn’t getting needed treatment....

At the high-security Hazelton penitentiary, which saw one of the largest drops in mental-health care, the average monthly rate of assault rose from 29 per 5,000 inmates in 2015 to 40 in 2016.  The increase in the rate of serious assault was particularly dramatic, more than quadrupling in that time period. The head of the correctional officers union there has attributed the increase in the rate of assault to guard understaffing.  Violence at Hazelton made headlines this fall when infamous mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was killed soon after being transferred to the facility.

A reader made this astute observation when flagging this article for me via email: "This article could be useful in an appropriate federal sentencing to argue for mental health treatment outside of BOP, or as mitigation in a BOP homicide case."

November 21, 2018 at 02:28 PM | Permalink


Is it any wonder the recidivism rate for some crimes is so high. Since the US abolished public mental health care/treatment in the name of civil rights, and left it to the prisons, what a wonderful opportunity to treat them, since they have no civil rights to speak of.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Nov 21, 2018 4:34:51 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB