By Pam Bailey
Last night, I received a call from Robert Horne, a D.C. resident incarcerated at the federal correctional institution in Hazelton, West Virginia. He was clearly both rattled and outraged. Robert regularly volunteers for a practice known in prisons as “suicide watch.” That alone would be worth a post. As Reena Kapoor, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, once wrote about it: “While placing people on ‘suicide watch’ does make it much harder for them to harm themselves, it also makes it almost impossible to improve their underlying psychiatric problem. The conditions are harsh, and they bear little resemblance to bona fide psychiatric treatment. In many cases, they actually make mental health worse.”
To set up the scene, consider what Dr. Kapoor goes on to describe: “Suicidal people are stripped of their clothing and underwear and dressed in a smock made of a tear-resistant material that is like the blankets moving companies use to wrap furniture. They are placed in a ‘suicide-resistant’ cell — typically a single cell without bed rails or anything that a noose could be tied around — and offered no items of comfort. They cannot shower or shave, and sometimes they are not even given toilet paper for fear that they might use it to harm themselves. Books and magazines are usually prohibited. Meals arrive without utensils, forcing them to eat foods like pasta and rice with their hands.”
Despite this barbaric approach to a mental health crisis, Robert volunteers to be an observer in an attempt to be a positive force. For four-hour shifts, he observes the person on “watch,” records anything alarming and calls for help when needed.
“I feel as though I want to help people,” he told me. “I really wanted to try to change things for them. This seemed like the best way that I could help somebody.”
But, I asked, does this approach to suicide prevention really help?
“Maybe, if staff were properly trained and they actually cared, it would,” he responded. “But the people here don’t care about us. And that shows in what I saw today. And now I want to help by speaking out.”
When Robert started duty yesterday, he was shocked at what he encountered. When he walked in the door in the back of the infirmary, he first saw his “subject” in his glass-walled room, the lights on 24/7. Next was his workstation, and then right behind that was another room — all separated from each other by a thin glass wall, allowing everyone to see and talk to each other. And inside that last room were four prisoners, lying on thin mattresses, one on the floor in each corner of the room. They weren’t suicidal, however — at least not yet. They were coughing constantly, suffering from COVID-19.
“Imagine that! The lights are on all the time, even at night; they have barely enough room to walk between their mattresses; and they told me no one is checking on them. They can barely get any water, and the little bit they get is literally hot. The COs (commanding officers) have bottled water, but these guys can’t even get much of the disgusting tap water. With COVID, they’ll be there for two or three weeks.”
Robert notes that one of the other prisoners died from COVID about three weeks ago, and several units in the prison have been locked down (a type of solitary confinement) due to spread of the illness. While some of the residents have been offered booster shots of the vaccine, Robert has not. No one is wearing masks, he says — including the guards, who bring the virus in.
Meanwhile, though, Robert is concerned about something else: The sick prisoners can see and hear everything the individual on suicide watch does, as well as hear the conversation when the psychologist visits.
“That’s got to be illegal,” Robert worries. “It really compromises the confidentiality of whatever is said with the psychologist. They can hear everything. And it puts me in the middle of it.”
He goes quiet on the phone. Then: “The guys with COVID asked me to help them. They’re willing to talk. If somebody could us come here and go to the infirmary, they’d see them.”
Here’s an idea: Let’s all send this post to the office of Sen. Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Last month, he called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to replace FBOP Director Michael Carvajal, after an investigation by The Associated Press found “abuse, graft and corruption” in the agency.
The AP’s investigation found that more than 100 BOP workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced since the beginning of 2019 for a host of crimes, including sexual abuse, murder, stealing property and smuggling drugs and weapons. The AP further alleged that the BOP is rife with corruption and abuse, neglecting to act when employees are accused of misconduct.
So, maybe Durbin will care? After the holidays, email or call his office at 202.224.2152.