Supermax prisons: 21st century asylums

From Al Jazeera
By Helen Redmond
Friday, August 5, 2011

Solitary confinement in the new dungeons of the US trigger mental illness in prisoners.

Supermax prisons: 21st century asylums via Al Jazeera

Lucy Flores, whose husband spent four years in Pelican Bay, at a rally in support of inmates on hunger strike (REUTERS)

The recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay supermax prison in California exposed for three weeks the carefully planned and executed barbarism of life in supermax America. The utter desperation of the human cargo behind the concertina wire, buried deep inside concrete coffins was gut wrenching and heart breaking. Hunger strikes are a tactic of last resort for the completely subjugated; a slow, painful, non-flammable version of self-immolation.

Brian Nelson, a survivor of 12 years in solitary confinement at Tamms supermax prison in Illinois, understands the conditions that drove the men in Pelican Bay to stop eating. Distraught and anxious, Nelson paced in his cell for more than ten hours a day – causing severe, bloody blisters on the soles of his feet. He tried to hang himself. In the year 2000, Nelson went on hunger strike for 42 days with four other prisoners to protest many of the same conditions that exist at Pelican Bay.

The demands of Tamm’s hunger strikers were similar, too: better food, shoes with arches, appropriate clothing, access to education, inmates with mental illness be transferred out, bilingual staff and abolition of the “renunciation policy” – the “debriefing policy” related to gangs that Pelican Bay prisoners demanded be abolished. Guards tried to break the hunger strike at Tamms by leaving carts of fried chicken and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the wing. The delicious smells didn’t break Nelson.

Supermax prisoners’ daily lives are chock full of alienating and undignified experiences, so empty of positive human interaction, thousands are willing to risk death than endure such inhumane conditions. That alone speaks volumes about the reality of life in supermax prisons.

One of the most humiliating aspects of life for inmates are the frequent strip searches – forced to be naked, ordered to bend over by guards and spread the buttocks apart to have the anus inspected for contraband while coughing. Strip searches are the old normal. The photos of nude prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq shocked the world, but to be stripped naked for hours or even days is standard operating procedure in supermaxes.

Nelson explained: “Every time you leave your cell you’re strip searched … They do this to degrade and shock you…Sometimes the guards would make ‘homosexual’ comments like: ‘Hey baby, spread your cheeks’. Darrell Cannon, a survivor of a nine-year stretch in Tamms, described the strip search: ‘They tell you to open your mouth, raise your tongue, hold your hands up, they go through your fingers and toes and tell you to turn around and spread your cheeks up against the chuckhole … It’s degrading to have two other human beings looking at you like you’re some kind of specimen. It is extremely degrading.”

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Phoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized
(1980 – 1990)

Phoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising, Myths of Mental Illness

The Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT) has made Phoenix Rising, an important zine published by ex-psychiatric inmates. From the letter Myths of Mental Illness by Carla McKague which led to the first issue:

The reason that all of us are here, .you and me, is a gigantic problem. Some of you are aware of the dimensions of the problem; some of you may not be fully aware. Let me start by giving you a little bit of an idea.

Right now, this moment, there are 50,000 Canadians in mental hospitals. Tomorrow, another 30,000 to 50,000 will be showing up either at out-patient clinics or at private psychiatrists’ offices. Every year 130,000 Canadians enter psychiatric institutions, and about two-thirds of them are coming back; they’ve been there before, and they’re back. At least one in ten Canadians can expect at some time in his or her life to spend time in a psychiatric institution. And, to switch to financial terms, the cost of maintaining those
institutions in Canada is approximately a million dollars a day. That’s the size of the problem we’re facing.

Now, I don’t know most of you sitting in front of me. I’m not sure why you’re here as individuals. I can make some guesses. Some of you are people who work professionally in the field of “mental illness”; you may be doctors, nurses or social workers who are concerned about the problem. Some of you are plainly and simply–and importantly–members of the
community who are aware that there’s a problem and would like to help do something about it. Some of you have had the experience yourselves of being patients, or have had someone
in your family have that experience. You’re probably concerned; you’re probably confused; you’re probably not quite sure what it is that’s happened to you, and why it’s happened,
and what you can do about it.

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A violent stigma for mentally ill

From The Irish Times
By Carl O’Brien
Monday, August 24, 2010

John McCarthy via Irish TimesPsychiatric nurses argue that more staff are needed to manage violent patients – but are patients with mental illness any more violent than the rest of the community?

When the union representing psychiatric nurses launched a campaign for extra staff earlier this month, it painted a disturbing and violent portrait of life on the wards of our mental hospitals.

Due largely to hundreds of staff vacancies, the union argued, there has been a sharp increase in assaults on members of staff. It said 1,314 assaults on staff were recorded last year, up from 966 in 2007 and 1,104 in 2008.

On one occasion eight gardaí in riot gear had to come to the assistance of nurses trying to manage a highly aggressive patient at St Brendan’s Hospital in Dublin. In Ennis, it says, a single patient was being managed 24 hours a day by security staff due to a shortage of nurses and secure facilities.

The result, the Psychiatric Nurses Association said, was that patients suffering from depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder were having their recovery threatened by this “frightening and threatening hospital environment”.

The picture depicted by the union, however, has been criticized by some mental health campaigners. John McCarthy, founder of the Mad Pride movement, says the behavior of a small minority of patients has been used to further nurses’ demands for higher staffing levels and better working conditions.

The collateral damage, he says, is that efforts to reduce stigma against people with mental health problems are being undermined.

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