Tragedy: Mental illness in a state prison

This is what it’s like to be a mentally ill, delusional prisoner in a California prison. Already so deranged, paranoid and irrational that you have flooded your concrete prison cell with toilet water and smeared feces, a small, grinning face appears in the window slit of the cell door and tells you to take medication. Whether from paranoia, delusions or just simply not understanding the instructions, you do not verbally respond.

Outside your cell the smiling doctor wearing street clothes tells an unseen force you will not comply. Reading from prepared script a prison guard, wearing a gas mask that resembles an alien face and muffles and obscures his voice, tells you to cuff up or they will come and get you. The food tray slot in the cell door, a small rectangle just large enough for a cafeteria tray to enter or a pair of hands to push through, opens to admit a long hose, which immediately begins to fill that small concrete cell, with no window and no way out, with eye and lung searing chemical spray known as “OC” or pepper spray.

As you stumble around the cell, crying for help, the demon heads continue to shout and eventually, more through chance than intent, one hand extends through the food port.

Minutes go by as again and again the hose continually pumps spray into your cell and the muffled aliens in haz mat suits yell what might sound like “cuff up” if you could hear them over the gas mask muffle, the hissing of the hose—and your own screams of agony and confusion as the gas sets skin, eyes and lungs on fire. As you stumble around the cell, crying for help, the demon heads continue to shout and eventually, more through chance than intent, one hand extends through the food port.

That hand is immediately captured by a metal handcuff secured to a long chain and hook and the shouting heads try to pull you toward the door—the source of the agonizing spray. You pull away, more spray is pumped into your already sodden cell.

As you writhe on the floor in searing pain and continue to yell for help, asking ‘what’s happening to me?’ the alien heads at the window slot continue to tug on your cuffed hand, trying to pull you toward the source of the agonizing mist, all the while yelling incomprehensible directions to you. Even asking “Do you want more OC?”

This macabre spectacle continues for nearly 20 minutes, until the white suited tormentors decide on a plan to enter your cell and, as they tell each other, “get him.” And so they do, dragging you naked, screaming in fear, pain and confusion, unable to see because of chemical in your eyes, into the hallway where 5 shouting demons throw you to the concrete floor, kneel on your legs, back, arms and hold your head down while they struggle to truss you up like a helpless turkey. The chilling rattle of chains adds to the cacophony of shouted orders, your screams for help and collateral noise as items littering the hallway fall and bounce off the concrete floor and walls.

Finally tossed like a trash bag onto a gurney, hands cuffed behind your back, skin wet from burning pepper spray, eyes streaming, coughing and spitting from inhaled chemical, you’re wheeled into another concrete room where 6 or 7 masked goons yank you from gurney to concrete cot where you are strapped down, forcibly given an injection. Disoriented, terrified and in pain you shout your feelings—“My skin is falling off,” “my wrist is falling off” and “I don’t want to be executed.” With at least 5 hands pushing down on your neck and throat you cry “I’m strangling.” And all the demon heads say, as they tighten the straps holding you down, is “relax.”

By now 30 minutes have passed since you first felt the effects of pepper spray.

Satisfied with a job well done, sure you cannot move, the white and green suited demons leave. You remain, naked and covered in pepper spray, on the concrete bed, restrained and confused. One wrist, injured and bloodied in the extraction, is ‘documented’ on film, but not yet treated. 

By now 30 minutes have passed since you first felt the effects of pepper spray. And despite your pleas for help and the protocol for use of pepper spray calls for decontamination to begin immediately, no one has done so much as poor water over your streaming eyes or burning skin.

That protocol also notes, “[A]nxiety, fear and disorientation sometimes to the point of panic are normal reactions.” Sounds like an appropriate treatment for delusional, confused and already disoriented individuals.

Welcome to mental health treatment and care in California prisons.

Ed’s Note: Vanessa Nelson-Sloane heads the Life Support Alliance, which advocates on behalf of prisoners sentenced to life. 


  • Melodie Bobo

    It’s SO NOT RIGHT !!!!!! And shouldn’t happen, not even to ONE person ….it seems like the prisons are allowed to do what ever they want., they are there own police, judge, and jury … It’s like they are committing a crimes, that they should be in front of a judge for !

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marilyn-Prayfourpeace/100001300827616 Marilyn Prayfourpeace

    Horrible. The Supreme Court upheld the Constitution and California must reduce the number of prisoners pack in like feedlot cattle. We now need a ruling again torture such as this and that of long-term solitary confinement.

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  • Pray4Zach

    This is so painful to read. My son, 3 1/2 years ago became psychotic. At the age of 20, he had never so much had gotten a speeding ticket or ever been in a fight with anyone. In his delusional state, he demanded car keys from a person, throwing a chair at her which caused a cut above her eyebrow (released after stitches from an emergency room within an hour of the incident). He led the police on a high speed chase down a dangerous pass ending by a tack strip in the road. He received 5 years in prison at 85% because they deemed the cut to be “great bodily injury”. Still psychotic, and an adult, our hands were tied as we pleaded with him to not take the plea bargain. He was on meds for his pychosis and abruptly stopped taking his meds while at the Santa Barbara County Jail and became manic(very common as psychotropic meds need to be titrated). While we were visiting him he said, “I’m sooo hot” and took off his shirt. The seargent yanked the phone from my husband to tell my son to put on his shirt (which he had already done). For this, they gave him 5 weeks of isolation. As a mental health professional, I know how dangerous it is to isolate someone suffering from psychosis. This was a very frightening time for him and for us.
    Once he was sentenced, his next step was to be “classified” . This is a procedure where newly sentenced inmates are brought as a kind of clearing house to determine what level of security they will be at and what type of needs they might have. My husband hand delivered documentation from county mental health in Santa Barbara County, the probation department, the court psychologist and his private psychiatrist who all said that this was someone who did not act with criminal intent and who they believed would best be suited for treatment instead of prison (we also gave all the documentation to the head D.A. in this case who refused to do anything). Unbelievably, when they classified my son, the head psychologist who had received all the documentation, told me by phone that my son had NO mental illness and would not be eligible to receive any mental health services! I told him that he is having audible, tactile and visual hallucinations as well as delusions. He told me that the psychologist assigned to my son who he has the greatest confidence in, believes him to not have any mental health needs. This has been the hardest things our family has ever been through.
    On a positive note, my son’s psychosis stopped two years ago. He is doing well in spite of still being in prison. He will be released in July of 2014.

    • mthstar

      Would this country just STOP with the tyranny?? I’m embarrassed to say I have American citizenship. Let’s end the prison-industrial-economy now.

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