The News Tribune reported today that retired Tacoma, Washington boxer and former amateur Super Heavyweight who once missed an Olympic qualification by just two points, Jonte “Rock Steady” Willis is suing the state over delays in his mental health evaluation, claiming that he suffered in the prison system while awaiting proper treatment. Judges are also at war against Western State Hospital, filing contempt of court orders for delaying treatment and admission of jail inmates in Pierce County and elsewhere to psychiatric hospitals.
Willis now waits in Perce County Jail, rather than the Western State Hospital although mental-health treatment is a legal right and theoretically guarantee by necessity. Willis has been confined for several months with no bail bond set, not treatment received – including no therapy counseling, or medication, and no apparent escape from what is being called, “cinder blocks” – red tape tripping up inmates who need mental health treatment. Willis is not alone in his plight of lacking mental health support after being handled by the broken justice system. Many inmates who are mentally ill have symptoms before their incarceration – meaning that their detention might have been avoided with prior, proper care.
Inmates with mental health challenges are commonly placed in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours in a day, due to being “out of control”. They may barely survive there for months at a time, receiving nil or minimal treatment, and that only after they have psychotic episodes or become physically ill or injured. With the trend in incarceration of mental health needing inmates, prison has become the new asylum. The News Tribune confirms that Willis was held in solitary confinement until a few weeks ago (presumably since July 23rd). The average wait from incarceration to treatment is a minimum of sixty days – during which inmates’ conditions deteriorate.
According to the PBS FRONTLINE documentary, “The New Asylums,” some mentally ill persons were being jailed as a result of their society not knowing what else to do with them. While these mentally affected inmates should be in psychiatric hospitals receiving monitored care, they are instead having an unnecessary prison experience. Most mental health patients who do enter a psychiatric program (and most tend to be placed on psychotropic medications) have a significant reduction in symptoms and become a non-threat to society.
During the 1900’s and earlier, terrifying things happened to patients in mental hospitals. The average psychiatric ward today is very different. But in the prison system, it’s like psychiatric care took a century wide back-step, back to abuse of the mentally ill.
Watching the documentary, it was quite unsettling to see mentally ill inmates talking with a therapist from inside a small cage – like primates undergoing testing. My heart just sank when I saw that. If those people were in a psychiatric hospital, they would not have been in cages like that – the same people, with the same symptoms, the same care plans, would have been in a group therapy setting with nutritional, mental, and physical care. It made me feel that inmates are treated like rats.
I was also shocked at the use of force when handling the mentally ill inmates. The documentary showed four or five armored guards to one inmate, and the guards would rush into the inmate’s room like they were chasing him – but he had nowhere to run in a solitary confinement cell smaller than the restroom in most modern homes. Sometimes the inmate would be naked; the guards would not even show concern for the patient’s dignity, to cover him or dress him before forcefully dragging him out of his cell, naked. That would certainly not happen in a psychiatric hospital where it is understood that the patient’s view of him or herself is just as important as the care received. Person perception is a serious factor in mental health.
Willis was initially booked for assault investigation in July of last year. The alleged incidence of choking his girlfriend in a dispute followed a series of deteriorating and strange behaviors as Willis went on a losing streak in his boxing career. Official court records show that he was diagnosed with a “mild neuro-cognitive” disorder due to traumatic brain injury with behavioral disturbance. Willis was under court order of mental health incompetence and commission to Western State Hospital. He was to receive a mental health evaluation and treatment, which traditionally takes a week to process and be implemented. Inexplicably, Willis spends 91 days waiting in jail with no action on his court ordered commission.
When Willis was eventually restored to competence, he pleaded guilty to one gross misdemeanor count of fourth-degree assault. Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin sentenced him to 364 days in jail, gave him credit for 227 days, and suspended the remaining time. Willis has no prior convictions.
When an inmate is finally sent to infirmary and then transferred to the prison psychiatric hospital, that person seems to improve well. If this therapy is known to work, it should be an automatic provision. There, inmates are treated like people, not animals. While a paroled inmate with a prescribed medication is generally given at limited supply of his required medications, he or she may unfortunately not be able to get an appointment with a psychiatrist soon enough after release to get refills before a probable two-week supply of medication runs out. This prison-integrated psychiatric system is not designed for long-term care. The included video speaks of current reforms and needed support.
With an average three-month waiting period for a psychiatric appointment, it is basically a given that the parolee is going to go off his or her medications and have a setback. Many end up committing a crime because of not being able to maintain their prescribed medication regimen – and they end up back in prison. Going back to prison indelibly means that the inmates mental condition will decline again into the cycle of prison, infirmary, hospital… prison, infirmary, hospital… prison, infirmary, hospital…