Inmate Testimony Day 2

In the ninth day of trial on what was the second day of inmate testimony in the MentalHealth4Inmates trial, five inmates testified about conditions and treatment in S.C. Dept. of Corrections facilities.

The testimony was about topics of medication; a lack of privacy in counseling, limited access to counselors and conditions in the prisons. There was much testimony about treatment administered to control the population, such as restraint chairs, gassing with pepper spray and being kept naked in “very cold, filthy conditions.”

Several testified to being pepper sprayed while in their cells or the restraint chair, being kept naked and cold for days or weeks while in what is called “Crisis Intervention” or CI. One might presume that CI is for the inmate’s own protection from self-harm, but inmates testified that when an inmate suggests harm to himself or others they are held for a period of up to several weeks in a condition that consists of being kept in a cell without clothing, oftentimes not even a blanket, having to sleep on the cold cement floor strewn with feces and blood of previous occupants. Many inmates say they are not fed regularly and some were not given water.

Lee County Correctional Center was identified by many as having the worst conditions during CI.

One inmate described sleeping on the Styrofoam food trays that the officers do not pick back up to insulate him from the cold. Another described the cold as being all year long – “they blast the air conditioning even in the winter.” Each said it was nearly impossible to sleep during their time in CI, several describing how a lack of sleep exacerbates their mental conditions.

Mentally ill inmates told of being sprayed with gas for asking to see their counselors. Counseling sessions are not held in private, but are shouted through the cell doors, making the inmates’ concerns able to be overheard by other inmates and corrections officers (CO’s). Two inmates testified about that confidential information being used against them by officers; others said they don’t reveal information about how they are really feeling because “if I tell them I want to hurt myself or someone else, they will put me in CI.”

One mentally ill inmate, whose conviction was for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and who is held on a maximum security unit for the past seven years after two escapes was asked to describe his experience.

“Don’t know how to explain it. I stay in my cell,” he testified. “There isn’t any rec (recreation – an hour a day out of the cell for exercise). I’m fully restrained; black box; leg irons. I ain’t been out none this year and only two – four times last year… but the recreation room is not much different than my cell… 10x12 or 14… couple feet bigger than the cell… solid concrete walls; steel grated roof overhead. You don’t get to see nobody – no people. The only time you see people is when officers put you in there. You just see the officers, then they close the door and close another door -- two doors between.  I’m in restraints – two pairs of handcuffs; black box, waist chain, leg chains and more.”

The access to counseling during detention in CI is often less, rather than more, according to the prisoners in crisis. They testified to a range of time spent at their cell door with counselors between two and six minutes.

The chilling effects of CI appear to go beyond the cold cement floor on their naked bodies. The effect on their ability and willingness to talk to counselors and psychiatrists while on CI was attested to as learning “That I shouldn’t confide in them… or I’ll get on CI.”

There was a sense at one point in testimony that the fear of reprisals for testifying was very real for these inmates, which was addressed by the Honorable Judge Baxley, who assured the inmates that he would not tolerate any reprisal.

Several described how it feels to be sprayed with pepper spray: “It burned. It burns for days. Even after you are out of the restraint chair – they spray you, place you in restraint chair then let you out after four hours to shower, even though I asked for a shower before. No - it burns like fire.”

One inmate described a time he was “jacked up” – where his restraints were put on incorrectly – with a  black box restraint, two pair of handcuffs; leg irons, belly chain; explaining “they twisted leg irons around my arms … pulling on the arms and binding my wrists even more; running around the leg irons tight so I have to bend down.” 

He described being wet from a flooding sprinkler head and left there in his boxers for 30 minutes.

“Then they took me out to the recreation area open to the sky at 2 in the morning for an hour with the temperature in the 30s.”

He described feeling very cold, saying he was, “Freezing… shaking – couldn’t stop shaking. The correctional officers were standing inside the door watching me.”

The inmate said that resulted in an Internal Affairs investigation. The inmate reported that he was told that, because the supervising officer was no longer at the department, “no further actions were needed.”

Defense counsel cross-examined that witness on his multiple escapes and disciplinary record, as well as the lawsuits he has filed on the basis of “cruel and unusual punishment” for lights being on 24/7 in his camera cell to prevent escape. That appeal is up for consideration by the United States Supreme Court.

Other efforts to single out inmates were testified about, including one inmate who said he is forced to wear a pink jumpsuit because he was told a “pervert is put in pink.”

Another aspect several testified about revolved around lack of correctional officers’ response to requests for medical care, and in two inmates’ statements, that they had been assaulted by officers causing pain and bodily harm.

One testified to having a corrections officer kneel on his hand while putting him into the restraint chair, breaking it, then being left in the chair for four hours despite asking for the nurse. He stated he was not taken to the nurse for three days at which point he said the hand was swollen to five times its size, which he attested caused gasps from the nursing staff. He said she thought he needed to go to the hospital but instead his hand was wrapped and he was sent back to his cell. Days later he was given medical treatment.

Another inmate, an asthmatic, described having been gassed without being allowed access to his inhaler about a month ago. “My cellmate busted the window out; I was in the room; I got gassed along with cellmate; my cellmate was charged, not me. It was burning really bad.”

One of the final statements of the day was from an inmate who described trying to get medical intervention for another mentally ill inmate who had just returned from the hospital. “He was gurgling and trying to breathe. He wouldn’t answer; he was having some kind of seizures. I tried to knock on doors and get CO’s; no one showed up. We got louder and louder and screaming medical emergency. I took a wheelchair part and beat on the door for an hour before the officer came. I have a digital alarm and wrote the times down.”