As a captive population, prisoners have no choices about what, if any, medical and mental health care they receive. And, in most cases in U.S. prisons, any care given is substandard at best.
But even under these conditions, the courts have long found unacceptable and banned as unconstitutional the use of prisoners as mental health and medical staff or as guards, which were common official cost-cutting schemes up until the mid-to-late 1900s, when the courts finally began considering prisoners’ lawsuits against the barbaric conditions pervading U.S. prisons.
Under these challenges the uses of prisoners in these specialized roles was uniformly found to be dangerous, irresponsible and outright deadly.
So imagine how disturbed I was to find the practice alive and well upon my November 1, 2018 transfer into the Indiana prison system. Worse still is Indiana prisoners are used as mental health staff and guards precisely in situations where the lives of prisoners in need of professional care and supervision are most at risk.
Specifically, the Indiana Department of “Corruption” (IDOC) and its private corporate medical and mental health contractor, Wexford of Indiana, use prisoners to supervise, monitor, report and assess other prisoners who are actively suicidal, and many times also mentally ill.
My first exposure to the IDOC and Wexford endangering prisoners’ lives in this manner occurred while I was confined for two weeks at the IDOC’s Reception and Diagnostic Center, where I was witness to at least ten instances of this practice.
One example was a suicidal prisoner names Byron January, who was housed a couple of cells away from me. He was placed on suicide watch and strip cell status after a suicide attempt on November 15, 2018. He was also quite obviously mentally ill.
Over the next several days on the suicide watch status, a series of prisoners were tasked to pull four hour shifts sitting directly in front of January’s cell with a clip board in hand, watching and recording his every activity inside his cell. If the prisoner on the watch status does anything untoward, the prisoner monitoring him is to immediately report it to guards.
In my nearly 30 years in prison I have never seen anything like this. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. One doesn’t need a court ruling to recognize this practice to be plainly wrong on just too many levels.
If it were exposed to loved ones, the public, or challenged in court, that prisoners on this so-called suicide prevention status, which is practiced throughout the IDOC, seriously mutilated or killed him/herself, the IDOC and Wexford could not begin to explain their practice of leaving the supervision, care, and safety of an actively suicidal, often mentally ill prisoner (and one who in many cases had just attempted suicide) in the hands of another prisoner, instead of guards and properly trained mental health staff.
After December, 2018, I questioned one particularly duplicitous Wexford mental health worker, John Purdue, who works at my present place of confinement, on this point, and he was at a loss to justify it.
It is bad enough that prison guards admittedly don’t receive adequate training to know how to treat mentally ill prisoners humanely. Worse still is these prisoners are generally persecuted by other prisoners, who have even less sensitivity to their conditions, symptoms, and needs. It is thus gross endangerment to place the care and supervision of a mentally ill person who is actively suicidal in the hands of other prisoners.
This says nothing of the multitudes of conflicts of interest that exist between prisoners, that officials in every circumstance frequently cite as the basis for needing to subject them to heightened scrutiny to protect them from one another, such as racial and so-called gang rivalries, and other social intolerances which prisoners aren’t apt to reveal to officials.
I’ve discussed this peculiar suicide precaution status with numerous IDOC prisoners, and many tell of prisoners who’ve instigated and even assisted others in self-harm, who they were monitoring on this status.
Then there’s the fact that prisoners documenting and reporting other prisoners’ behaviors to officials is literally snitching, which places these prisoner ‘monitors’ in the line of fire from their peers and further discourages a suicide monitor from being completely candid in what he reports and documents.
And IDOC officials definitely took their lead in using prisoners in this fashion from the old stool pigeon manual, since they incentivize prisoner suicide monitors with time cuts—a common inducement offered prisoners to snitch on others. And they know it’s snitching and is seen as such, because IDOC officials are compelled to frequently publicize via televised memos that reporting others’ behaviors to staff isn’t really snitching.
And let’s not forget prisoners’ right to have their mental health related issues kept confidential from those who aren’t mental health professionals.
What the IDOC’s practice boils down to is the economics of expediency and exploitation. Prisoners are slaves—literally. Slavery is an exploitative economic condition where the enslaver seeks to make as much wealth as possible while minimizing to the greatest extent the cost of the slaves’ upkeep. And where, as in U.S. prisons, the slaves are readily replenished from an inexhaustible supply of human bodies, the enslaver cares nothing about their physical or mental health. This is why it took court action to ban the use of prisoners as medical and mental health workers and guards. Apparently, the IDOC didn’t get the memo.
Dare to struggle, Dare to win!
All power to the People!
Johnson continues to suffer the confiscation of books, legal materials, art and personal materials as punishment for his consistent political organizing within prisons and outspoken reach beyond those walls. The repression Johnson endures also incurs legal costs for defense. To support him please consider making a PayPal donation via The Abolitionist Law Center using their email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be sure to note that your support is for Johnson in particular.