In 2008 another mentally ill prisoner at Alexander Correctional, Timothy E. Helms, was severely beaten with his hands cuffed behind his back. His skull fractured, a large boot-shaped bruise in the center of his chest, Timothy later died of his brutal injuries and all the while staff maintain he fell on the way to the showers.
Like Kerr, Helms was in solitary confinement and mentally deficient, but rather than receive much needed treatment from staff psychiatrists he was murdered. It seems the treatment at Alexander Correctional leaves patients dead.
In both cases a handful of low-level staff were fired or asked to resign, but no criminal charges for either death are forthcoming. The change being called for is a request for emergency prison staff to fill the many vacancies in the state’s prisons. As if that’s going to help. As if more of the same treatment will cure how the mentally ill are dumped into the prison system. If ever there was a need for mental hospitals such as Dorothea Dix it is now.
In the Kerr case the medical examiner claims to be unable to determine if the man’s death was an accident, natural, or a result of homicide because she hadn’t seen any official record. It’s almost as if she needs to be told what conclusion to reach.
Here’s a theory: if you isolate and restrain a man in a cell, then deny him water, he will die of dehydration. Since this takes some time and it was the intent of prison staff to deprive Kerr of water, this deliberate indifference to the man’s suffering resulted in his death. There is nothing natural or accidental about Anthony Kerr’s lack of basic human rights – he was killed by abusive prison staff.
That another mentally ill inmate died as a result of mistreatment in solitary confinement is no surprise to those of us who have served time in an isolated cell. Many of my experiences on Unit One at Central Prison, ICU at the Maine Youth Center, Safe Keeping at Blanch Prison in Greensboro, the Morganton High Rise, and the Buncombe County Jail have shown me jail and prison is where authorities don’t have to justify the abuse of power – it’s all they comprehend.
Any attempt by prisoners to decry isolation by yelling or banging on the door is met with excessive force. Chains or straps for four-point restraints, food rationing, canisters of mace emptied through the food slot, the water and toilet shut off, tasers and shock shields on naked flesh, and assault from thugs in uniforms while the prisoners is handcuffed behind the back and shackled – this is how prisoners in solitary confinement are treated in North Carolina and across the country. For those unfortunate who are resilient to such abuse and remain uncowed or incapable of understanding some prison staff don’t care – there is death.
When the horrors of Abu Ghraib were broadcast around the world many prisoners laughed at the indignant headlines. Where do you think such tactics were learned? Several of the military guards at the prison in Iraq previously worked in the American penal system. It doesn’t matter whether you are a suspected terrorist, mentally ill, young, old, male, or female, the hole in America is a reflection of its ugliest aspect. It demonstrates how vicious and pervasive our need to control and punish people has become. It is also suggestive of the primitive urges typically found in the undeveloped countries to which we pass the torch of democracy and civilization.
Where are our human rights, America?