by Ernest Chavez
A recent Supreme Court decision highlights the “cruel and unusual” conditions of the California prison system. Community organizer Ernest Chavez says inmates with mental health needs, such as Jerome Wilson, illustrate an even deeper systemic problem.
On May 23, 2010, in the landmark decision of Brown v. Plata, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the release of 37,000 prison inmates in California, arguing that the severe overcrowding in the prison facilities has reached a new height of danger – calling the current conditions of the facilities, “cruel and unusual,” and unconstitutional. In a system where tens of thousands of prison inmates suffer from mental illness and mental health issues, it is especially urgent to consider how these individuals will be impacted by this court order.
This especially concerns the vulnerable positions of mentally ill, mentally retarded, and inmates suffering from all spectrums of mental health issues, which has not been missed by the court. Justice Kennedy, in reading the court’s majority decision announced, “Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care.” As he goes into details about the horrific conditions of California’s prison facilities, he concludes, “Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result.”Although the Brown v. Plata decision is no doubt a victory for many activists, organizers, humanitarians, and family and community members who have been calling for improvement of the abhorrent conditions of California’s prisons, a critical question stands unanswered: How will the CDCR, and especially the “revolving door” parole system, respond to this court order in regards to the tens of thousands of inmates who are in severe need of psychiatric care, psychological therapy, and mental health assistance?
Consider the ongoing journey of Marian Taylor, resident of San Jose, CA, and mother to Jerome Wilson, a California prison inmate with mental health issues who continues to be incarcerated, even though he has served his full sentence and was supposed to be released in September of 2010.After visiting Jerome in January at California Medical Facility, Vacaville – one of the oldest and most deteriorated prisons in the state – Marian said to me, “They have my son sitting in a tiny cell that he can never leave – The medications they have him on are making him delusional – He can only recognize who I am for about 15 minutes. I asked him if he had blankets or anything warm – He said he had two blankets and that was it. He said to me, ‘Mom, they make me give the clothes back to them after the visit.’” Since this first visit in January, Marian has been repeatedly denied visitation to see Jerome.Jerome’s complicated journey began over 15 years ago, when he sustained a head injury which placed him in a coma and incapacitated him. He was still undergoing rehabilitation and relearning the basic daily tasks such as eating, changing clothes, and walking, when an acquaintance took advantage of him by storing stolen materials in Jerome’s residence at the time. These were the conditions that led to Jerome’s arrest and conviction of 15 years.In September of 2010, his full sentence had been served and he was scheduled to be paroled. Through several loopholes in CDCR and hospital procedure, Jerome was held against his will at Napa Valley State Hospital for over 2 months where he was again forcibly medicated, given poor psychological treatment, and was subject to frequent changes of doctors and medications, which eventually led to his parole violation when he had a negative reaction to a new medication and struck a hospital worker See “The Release That Wasn’t”.
At this point, Jerome should have been granted a parole revocation hearing to determine whether or not he was guilty of the charges. The hearing never happened. In fact, two were scheduled (one at Solano State prison, and one at San Quentin) and each was cancelled, last minute, upon request of prison administrators. This raises questions of the unconstitutionality of denying an inmate the right to due process of law – protected by the 14th Amendment of the United States constitution.
In January, Jerome was contracted an attorney through the California Parole Advocacy Project. His attorney visits him regularly and reports that he is being held in the same dehumanizing conditions that his mother describes. His attorney has filed a writ of habeas corpus – a timely but thorough process to bring Jerome before a judge who will hopefully recognize that he is in grave need of rehabilitative assistance and medical care, and more importantly, is in no condition to be left deteriorating in a prison. The state has 30 days to grant or deny the writ. Waiting on the response is especially difficult for Jerome’s mother, Marian Taylor.
While Jerome’s family and the De-Bug team await the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata has helped bring the desperately overcrowded and expensive problem of a broken California prison system, to the attention of the public.The extreme levels of overcrowding hold especially serious consequences for prisoners dealing with mental health problems. They are caught in a state of double jeopardy, where on the one hand they are already put in a dangerous position by being in prison, and then face the additional complication of being denied proper and basic medical and psychiatric care.The first condition of this double jeopardy can be thought of as stemming from problems embedded in the prison experience. As one scholar puts it, “There is nothing in life that can prepare you for the experience of prison.” The environment of prison is a starkly unusual one, where violence and exploitation of others is common place, and sometimes necessary for survival. This is unlike any other environment in our society. So, when people are sent to prison, they are forced to adapt in a most unusual way, in order to survive the prison experience. It is within this type of environment, that prisoners with mental health problems must try and cope. It is not surprising then, that many individuals come out of prison in a worse condition than when they went in.
The second condition of this state of double jeopardy is the added stress of coping with the lack of medical treatment, to the point that the U.S. Supreme Court calls “cruel and unusual punishment.” An individual such as Jerome cannot be allotted the proper treatment he needs. There are simply too many inmates. The prisons are operating at nearly 200% of capacity. There is not enough space; not enough medical supplies; not enough doctors to treat them; and most relevant to Jerome’s situation, not enough psychiatrists and psychologists to oversee the administering of medication as well as the rehabilitation of mental competency. This is why in the Brown decision, Justice Kennedy announced, “Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result.”
Finally, consider what happens to someone like Jerome in prison, under these conditions. Early on in his incarceration, due to his head injury and coma, Jerome had trouble following directions and remembering things in the prison facility. At this point, Jerome should have received specialized medical and psychological care. However, because the institution lacks the resources to provide this care, they instead forcibly medicated him as a method to control him. After 15 years of the prison environment and over-medication, Jerome is now in a worse mental state than ever, and in need of quality medical treatment more than ever.However, instead of receiving this much needed care, he continues to be incarcerated at the prison in Vacaville, where he is denied basic necessities such as clothing, denied visitations with his mother Marian Taylor, and continues to be forcibly and improperly medicated.
Over nine months have now passed since Marian Taylor first came to De-Bug seeking assistance with Jerome’s parole release. One thing has become clear: The California prison system has reached a braking point so desperate that even the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges it as a “cruel and unusual” system. However, we have yet to see how the CDCR will react to this order, how the tens of thousands of inmates suffering from different types of mental health problems will be treated as a result of this order, and finally how Jerome Wilson’s situation may or may not improve. For now, we await on a response to Jerome’s attorney’s writ of habeas corpus.
Ernest Chavez is an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project –a community organizing model that encourages family and community involvement in the court systems.