Report Uncovers Abuse of Inmates with Mental Health Issues

prison barsAccording to a new Human Rights Watch report, abuse of prisoners with mental health issues is rampant. The report details intense physical violence, including shocking prisoners, trapping them for days in restraining chairs, and spraying them with dangerous chemicals. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that about half of all prison inmates have a mental “illness,” suggesting that large numbers of prisoners may be vulnerable to abuse. In a climate where mental health care is often unaffordable or inaccessible, those who end up in prison due to mental health challenges may face an environment that compounds their symptoms and adds to their trauma.

How Common Is Abuse of Inmates with Mental Health Issues?

The scathing 127-page report details numerous instances of abuse, mostly in state and local prisons. In one case, prison guards pepper sprayed a prisoner about 40 times, then threw a pepper-spray grenade into his cell after he refused to leave the cell. The report alleges that staff frequently use force when inmates refuse to obey orders. But for those who struggle with mental health issues, obeying orders may be challenging or impossible. In some cases, those orders don’t make sense. For some inmates, the orders are frightening.

Brian Spears, a civil rights attorney who litigates prison and police abuse cases, told that it’s common for those with mental health issues to struggle to follow prison rules.

“Isolation of a person who is mentally ill rarely, if ever, contributes to their recovery,” Spears said. “When you couple this with the fact that persons who are mentally ill cannot be expected to act rationally in response to otherwise direct orders from officers in a custodial situation, both the officers and the prisoner enter a cycle of abuse that must be broken.”

Human Rights Watch’s report makes it clear that this cycle of abuse can cost prisoners dearly. The report shares stories of guards breaking prisoners’ noses, jaws, and ribs. After abuse at the hands of guards, some prisoners required stitches. The report points to prisoners with second-degree burns and damaged internal organs.

Some abuse is so severe that it claims inmates’ lives. In one such instance, a graphic video shows 35-year-old Charles Lopez having a seizure. Prison officials found Lopez on the floor of his cell, barely able to move. Rather than seeking medical help, officials shackled Lopez to a restraining chair. When he was removed from the chair several hours later, he struggled to breathe. Lopez died of a treatable blood condition about 15 hours after his ordeal began.

Delayed Treatment for Mental Health

Albert Wan, an attorney specializing in civil rights issues, said that people with mental health issues may not get proper care in prisons in jails. He told about a client whose mental health episode led to his arrest and incarceration.

“The thing that stands out for me about the case was how long it took to get the client a psych evaluation for purposes of the criminal proceeding,” Wan said.

When prisoners aren’t promptly evaluated, they may go weeks without treatment, leading to a decline in mental health and an increased risk of abuse. Left untreated, people with mental health conditions may behave in ways that cause them to be charged with additional crimes, prolonging their jail or prison stays.

When prisoners aren’t promptly evaluated, they may go weeks without treatment, leading to a decline in mental health and an increased risk of abuse. Left untreated, people with mental health conditions may behave in ways that cause them to be charged with additional crimes, prolonging their jail or prison stays.

Spears said he has had clients lose their lives when prisons were ill-equipped to handle their mental health issues. He shared the story of a man with schizophrenia who was tasered to death in a Georgia jail. The man was held after violating a protective order—a minor legal infraction that Spears attributes to the man’s mental health struggles.

Spears said the man reacted poorly to being confined alone in a cell. The man, who had a needle phobia, panicked when a prison nurse entered his cell to give him an injection designed to calm him down. A scuffle ensued, and sheriff’s deputies ultimately tasered the inmate, resulting in his death.

Spears’s client, like so many other people with mental health issues, had a long history of childhood abuse. A social worker rescued the man from his abusive home and raised him herself, but she couldn’t protect him from a prison climate that is not supportive or helpful to those with mental health issues. “Persons with mental illness are exposed to excessive force because they’re in an institution where control, not treatment, is the goal,” Spears said. “The model is control first, and treatment maybe never. It costs families every day.”

Spears said prisons can’t be used as warehouses for people who can’t afford treatment or who don’t have the social support they need to seek treatment.

“We can’t, as a society, structure the delivery of mental health care in a way that requires people who cannot be expected to behave rationally to respond rationally to the orders of people who are frightening to them, particularly in situations where they are otherwise of no risk to anybody,” Spears said, highlighting the fact many incarcerated people with mental health issues committed nonviolent offenses.

Wan agrees.

“Prisons are not equipped to deal with the mentally ill,” Wan said. “There’s certainly nothing that is part of their core mission as a penological institution that pertains to the treatment and care of the mentally ill. But no one pretends that we have a rational, overarching policy to deal with the mentally ill, so I suppose that’s a start.

“Whether the powers that be will ever come up with one is less certain. Unlike investment bankers or lawyers, the mentally ill do not have a lobbying arm, and anything that’s done for their benefit will only come after we realize the status quo of imprisoning the mentally ill is no longer sustainable.”


  1. Callous and cruel. (2015, May 12). Retrieved from
  2. Department of Justice study: Mental illness of prison inmates worse than past estimates. (2006, September 6). Retrieved from

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  • Cassandra


    May 20th, 2015 at 1:18 PM

    Ok so for me this is such an important point to get out there, that maybe prison is not the right setting for every criminal, especially those with mental illness. They may not know how to handle these very stressful situations and clearly most of the guards in these facilities are not adequately trained to deal with this population. Yes they may have committed a crime and they may be different, but their human rights should not be violated just because no one seems to know what to do to rehab them.

  • Bill


    May 27th, 2015 at 4:45 PM

    These are people who often can’t even speak up for themselves or feel like there is no one to protect them from this abuse.

  • Blair


    May 31st, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    I would have thought that the guards and other non criminals in prison areas would be at higher risk for abuse than the inmates would be. All of the other stories that we hear about are inmate protests, uprisings etc, so that is where I would think that most of the harm comes from. Either way, it is a bad situation, something that the Bureau of Prisons is going to have to be willing to see and find a better way to reform the entire system.

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