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Why the Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners Matters

Suppose I told you that there was an institution where the mentally ill “interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells” and “mutilate their bodies with razors [and] shards of glass." Where inmates ... “carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads” and no one does anything to help.

You might think I was quoting a description of conditions at London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital during the 17th century, from which our word “bedlam” is derived.

But actually such a place exists today, right here in the United States.

That place is ADX-Florence, a federal prison in Colorado better known as the “Supermax.” I was quoting from the complaint in a lawsuit filed on behalf of five mentally ill inmates at the prison.

You may have heard of the Supermax: It’s where many of the most notorious federal prisoners, such as Theodore Kaczynski, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

But many, if not most, of the inmates at ADX-Florence will eventually be released. So while the alleged mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners is in and of itself unconscionable, it is highly possible that it could be injurious to the very people authorities are charged with protecting -- namely, us. Because releasing an untreated mentally ill offender back into the community is inviting tragedy.

In theory, mentally ill prisoners should not be serving time at ADX-Florence. As Andrew Cohen wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “federal policy prohibits inmates with serious mental illness from being transferred” to the Supermax.

But sadly this policy is not always adhered to. To make matters worse, the mentally ill have no access to the psychotropic medications they need, because these types of drugs are prohibited in the prison’s control unit.

Anyone who has known someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will realize that this is bad news. When the mentally ill prisoners start acting as if they were, well, mentally ill, the response, as alleged in the complaint, can include being “chained by the arms and legs to a concrete block often for extended periods ... [they] are often left to urinate and defecate on themselves, and are denied basic nutrition.”

Even if only some of these allegations are true, the situation is dehumanizing and unacceptable. And, what we know – or should know – about the treatment of mentally ill prisoners lends credence to their allegations. When the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population in 2010, it cited the treatment of mentally ill prisoners as evidence that overcrowding made conditions in California prisons a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The question is: Do we really care? Sadly, most Americans don’t. After all, the people in ADX-Florence have all committed serious crimes. But as Cohen noted, the Constitution doesn’t carve out exceptions for people convicted of serious offenses.

Nor does the Gospel. In fact, we are promised that we will be judged by whether or not we respond as Jesus would to their suffering, whether we care enough to act. That’s why Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice reform ministry, Justice Fellowship.

In my next broadcast, I’ll explain part of what’s driving what Cohen calls the “American Gulag.” Here’s a hint: the love of it is the root of all sorts of evil.

In the meantime, please go to JusticeFellowship.org to learn more about Justice Fellowship’s work for biblically-based justice reform — and how you can help.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: August 21, 2012

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