US jails use excessive force against mentally ill inmates

2015-05-12 19:51

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Washington - Mentally ill prisoners in US jails and penitentiaries are subjected to excessive use of force by ill-prepared corrections officers, the non-governmental Human Rights Watch found in a report issued Tuesday.

The report found unwarranted, excessive and sometimes punitive use of force - including restraints, pepper spray and electric stun devices - to be widespread.

"Jails and prisons can be dangerous, damaging and even deadly places for men and women with mental health problems," said Jamie Fellner, author of the Human Rights Watch report. "Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders."

Experts in corrections and mental health cited in the report urged better mental health treatment for inmates and more training to help staff recognise and respond appropriately to symptoms of mental illness.

Human Rights Watch said no national data was available for the report on the more than 5 100 jails and prisons in the United States, which are run by various agencies across the decentralised US law enforcement system: city police, county sheriffs, state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The report - Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons - is based on interviews with 125 current and former corrections officers, medical and psychiatric experts and prisoner advocates.

Roughly 20% of the US prison population has a serious mental illness, and 5% are estimated to be actively psychotic, the report said.

Human Rights Watch's recommendations include: reducing the population of mentally ill prisoners, in part by making community mental health treatment more available; improving mental health services for inmates; better policies on use of force against mentally ill prisoners; and more training and accountability for corrections officers in their handling of mentally ill prisoners.

"Custody staff are not trained in how to work with prisoners with mental disabilities, how to defuse volatile situations, or how to talk prisoners into complying with orders," Fellner said. "All too often, force is what staff members know and what they use. In badly run facilities officers control inmates, including those with mental illness, through punitive violence."

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