Solitary Court Challenged as Cruel and Unusual Punishment in North Carolina
There’s just no way to justify pepper spraying the mentally disabled and then giving them a beating to boot. It’s the sort of thing that hurts to think about–unless you’re a sociopath, of course–but it’s become the grisly norm in the world’s largest mental institution: the U.S. prison system.
I don’t know if he has family, but I feel morose on their behalf after reading about one poor Jerry C. Williams, a diagnosed psychotic imprisoned in Raleigh, North Carolina.
If an IQ of 76, a childhood victimized by sexual abuse, and 40 years of schizophrenia haven’t cramped his life chances enough, a lawsuit filed on his behalf documents how the 57 year-old man (yes, he is a man) is frequently pepper sprayed through the slot in the steel door on the cell that holds him in solitary confinement—the hole, as it’s known in prison parlance, the place where our proud nation’s mentally ill go to rot between beatings and sprayings, evidently.
State correctional officers have been menacing Williams so thoroughly that a federal lawsuit has been filed alleging cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Eleven years into the 28 year bid he received as a habitual offender for trespassing, assault and burglary, the N.C. native has spent years shuttling between cells in the prison mental ward and the solitary confinement of the prison’s infamous Unit One.
Williams is by no means alone in being pepper sprayed in the hole. The standard 6 by 12 foot cells, with a toilet and a bed made of slab, houses an estimated 25,000 inmates in 45 states that practice solitary confinement.
While most countries have phased out the hole as barbaric, and imprison far fewer people than we do here in “freedom-loving” America, the mentally ill are incarcerated and kept isolated for weeks and months on end, with profound psychological consequences.
Nobody pretends it’s doing any therapeutic good. Caging the mentally ill in isolation, a punishment known to drive a perfectly sane men mad, should gave any prison doctor moral pause. Only corrections officers seem to benefit. How much should society pay so they can get their sadistic kicks and giggles?
According to the suit filed by the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Williams and seven fellow inmates, who are locked up behind solid steel doors 23 to 24 hours a day, with only three to five hours a week of recreation, are also shackled and beaten out of view of security cameras where “the screws” can have their abusive way. Otherwise we’d be treated to the revolting spectacle on camera.
The suit claims the mistreatment violates the prison’s own protocol for handling inmates with chronic mental illness.
“The monotony of Unit One’s solitary regime is broken only by periodic inmate disturbances–flooding cells, setting fires, throwing liquids, and screaming, kicking, and banging on the doors,” the court motion explains.
“On the solitary confinement unit, some of the primary symptoms of Mr. Williams’s illness–agitation, yelling, kicking, and throwing things–are treated like pure behavior problems that must be punished with the intentional infliction of physical pain,” the court motion states.
“And the practice on Unit One is to deploy high-concentration Oleoresin Capsicum pepper spray as the first level response to any such disturbance, regardless of whether a real threat of bodily harm exists, and regardless of the mental health status of the disobedient inmate.”
The fiendish treatment Williams receives every livelong minute is not unusual. His experience echoes thousands of others across the country.
More than half of all prison and state inmates now report mental health problems, including psychosis, according to information from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Well over a million prisoners report mental health disorders in the state prison population, a figure five times greater (56.2 percent) than in the general adult population (11 percent).
‘You Want to Do Anything to Get Out, Even Kill Yourself’
“The first time you get locked up (in the hole), it about drive you wild,” the suit quotes Williams as saying. “You want to do anything to get out, even kill yourself.”
And whatever you do, he advises, don’t even thinking of muttering your disapproval. Williams was thrown in the hole on the night of Sept. 17, 2009, when he became agitated that his dinner tray did not include bread or a spoon.
When a correctional officer returned to collect the tray, Williams jammed it through the slot, causing it to land on the floor outside. Horrors! For this he was sprayed back through the slot eight times over a three-hour period, according to the lawsuit.
His lawyers say video of the incident shows prison guard rolling a large “MK21” canister of pepper spray into the hole, badly injuring him before a team of officers wearing body armor and wielding batons rushed in to administer high-voltage shocks from a stun gun.
The suit claims he was then dragged from his cell and punched and kicked out of camera view.
Tracey, P. (2013). Solitary Court Challenged as Cruel and Unusual Punishment in North Carolina. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/no-family-madder/2013/10/solitary-confinement-challenged-as-cruel-and-unusual-punishment-for-the-mentally-ill/