Former Prison Counselor Recounts The Horrors The Mentally Ill Endure

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

As prisons and jails increasingly house mentally ill individuals who might in past eras have gone to a psychiatric institution, these inmates have become disproportionate targets of abuse. This mistreatment ranges from punitive chemical sprays and stun guns, to being strapped into chairs or beds for days, to severe beatings or death, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday.

Corrections officials “break their jaws, noses, ribs; or leave them with lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs,” the report explains. “The violence can traumatize already vulnerable men and women, aggravating their symptoms and making future mental health treatment more difficult. In some cases, including several documented in this report, the use of force has caused or contributed to prisoners’ deaths.”

Amidst this violence, there are individuals whose job it is to treat these inmates, often in conditions that are inherently in tension with their illness. George Mallinckrodt was one of those people. He worked as a mental health counselor at the psychiatric ward in Florida where Darren Rainey was later scalded to death in a 160-degree shower.

Mallinckrodt was not a first-hand witness to any incidents like Rainey’s, although he later devoted so much time to investigating the incident that he published a book on the topic. Rather, he said, he witnessed daily abuse of a population segregated precisely because of their severe mental illness.

What other job can you possibly imagine where people on your caseload are beaten?

Particularly after his experience as an advocate in Florida, where stories of inmates who were gassed to death and scalded to death were revealed only after state prison inspectors came forward to blow the whistle on rampant suppression of abuse, Mallinckrodt suspects that what the public knows may be just a small fraction of what’s really going on behind bars.

“In terms of magnitude, [prison abuse] makes police brutality look like a drop in the bucket,” Mallinckrodt told ThinkProgress. “There aren’t people in jails with cell phones taking footage of abuse. That’s the problem. It’s happening in secret. And we hear dribs and drabs of stories but that only scratches the surface really.”

Mallinckrodt, one of the few people to come forward publicly about his experiences inside Florida prisons, talked to ThinkProgress about what was like to work in a unit for inmates with severe mental diagnoses such as paranoid schizophrenia, in an environment that exacerbated their condition.

“What other job can you possibly imagine where people on your caseload are beaten?” Mallinkcrodt said, speaking to ThinkProgress from his Miami Beach home. “It was just was so alien to me and something I had to navigate pretty much on my own because the [Department of Corrections] and Corizon Health offer no training whatsoever in recognizing abuse. And so literally for years, I was seeing more minor forms of abuse but just writing it off as another bad day in prison.”

Evidence of this abuse included bruises and scars, reports of beatings from other staff members who were afraid to report incidents. Evidence that inmates were not being fed. Bogus disciplinary reports that meant the removal of basic inmate privileges. And most prominently, the taunting of inmates.

“You know we had a sergeant,” Mallinkcrodt said. “Every morning he went to one side of the unit where there was a man who was severely mentally ill. He would get him riled up and that guy would bang his head on the door or yell out for hours. I mean the mentally ill have a stamina you would not believe. I mean you and I. We could fake mental illness for about 15 minutes and then we’d just get tired.”

In terms of magnitude, [prison abuse] makes police brutality look like a drop in the bucket.

The guard would then go to the other side of the unit and to the “other guy he could get riled up and that guy would go off for hours. And that’s inmate abuse. We didn’t need the guards to make people more crazy.” What’s more, Mallinkcrodt said, the guards were sabotaging the therapeutic work he was trying to do with these inmates. He characterized some of them as “sadistic sociopaths.”

Mallinckrodt recounted one story involving an inmate who had been making some of the most significant progress during therapy sessions. Mallinckrodt entered this inmate’s unit one day to find him with an open gash on his head, blood on the floor and on the window. The inmate told him two “linebacker-sized guards” smashed him into the concrete floor. In the days and weeks after the incident, the inmate’s progress reversed; he “decompensated.” And one day, he attacked Mallinckrodt.

“So these guards. … They don’t realize by escalating violence it’s just gonna create more violence,” Mallinckrodt said. “So they made it unsafe for themselves. They made it unsafe for staffers. And then the abuse continues.”

Mallinckrodt also had his own experiences with the silencing of abuse. A fellow staff member told him about a brutal beating with an eyewitness that the staff member was afraid to report. Mallickrodt attempted to report it for her, pointing out during a staff meeting that the incident had not been addressed. “There was dead silence,” Mallinckrodt said. “No one wanted to talk about it. … Finally the site manager for Corizon who was a psychologist looked over at me and said, well Mr. Mallinckrodt if you’re having concerns you should put it in writing.” Mallinckrodt deemed the response disingenuous and “pathetic.”

Mallinckrodt started becoming known as a go-to person to report abuse. And the more he became the receptacle for stories of abuse that were being ignored by prison officials, the more Mallinckrodt’s anxiety became unsustainable. He couldn’t lift his hand without it shaking. He experienced low-grade nausea. “My response was to take longer and longer lunches. I figured if I could just get out for lunch to decompress, I could just survive another day.” Until the day when he came back from a long lunch and he was fired. “I felt this amazing relief lifted from me,” he said.

In days since Mallinckrodt left, a former coworker called him to tell him about Darren Rainey’s death, and he became one of the most vocal advocates for accountability at Florida’s Department of Corrections. Despite widespread recognition of this epidemic in Florida, and a bipartisan bill in the state legislature to reform it, the bill died in the Senate last month. Gov. Rick Scott (R) did issue an executive order this week to institute some reforms in its place, but the executive order relies on the very same Department of Corrections to perform the oversight it has thus far been accused of shirking.

Mallinckrodt doesn’t think the executive order goes nearly far enough, and he calls for many of the same reforms as Human Rights Watch in their new report: establishing use of force policies and training staff on those policies, testing for incoming staff to screen out individuals with sociopathic tendencies, dramatically improved oversight and surveillance cameras, and most fundamentally, policies that improve inmates’ condition rather than making it worse. This includes keeping inmates out of solitary confinement, where inmates in Mallinckrodt’s unit spent most of their time.

But underlying the debate is another larger question, at a time when, as Human Rights Watch puts it, “It is well known that US prisons and jails have taken on the role of mental health facilities”: Should these mentally ill inmates be there in the first place?

“That’s the other constant discussion I had with my coworkers,” Mallinckrodt said. “We’d get somebody in who was just severely mentally ill. And our constant refrain was just how did they find this guy fit for trial? He should be in a mental institution not prison. And that still confounds me.”