Ethan Frenchman, a Washington attorney who advocates for people with disabilities in prisons, told me that while the country’s approximately 1,500 state prisons are operated or supervised by 50 states, its approximately 3,000 prisons “are operated by whomever know how many hundreds or thousands of different jurisdictions,” making it extremely difficult to get reliable information about what is happening there, or enforce any kind of accountability.
One data point is undeniable: suicide rates. Suicides are the leading cause of death in prisons, where they are much more common than prisons. Large city prisons, such as the complex on Rikers Island, are notorious for violence, neglect and overcrowding, but they are not outliers. In fact, research by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that suicide rates in the country’s smallest prisons were more than six times higher than in the largest.
On my recent trip to the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma, Washington, where I was sent to await a hearing that was eventually postponed, I shared a cell with William Starkovich, a 35-year-old who had never been to prison before. had been sitting. He awaits trial at the Pierce County Jail after an altercation with his siblings over rent money ended in two charges of first-degree assault.
Mr. Starkovich, who gave me permission to tell his story, has been diagnosed with ADHD, Manic Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Because his mental illness can affect his ability to maintain his physical hygiene, he is often the target of ridicule and aggression from other inmates. He has been attacked by other prisoners and guards. Mr. Starkovich told me that guards insisted on transferring him to an open dormitory where he did not feel safe. When he would not enter the unit, “code blue” was shouted, meaning a prisoner disobeyed an order. He was wrestled to the ground, tased and handcuffed.
Reports from prisons across the country, from New York’s Rikers to the Santa Clara County Main Penitentiary Complex in San Jose, California, have shown that mentally ill people are often mistreated. Families have filed lawsuits alleging that detectives severely beat, starved or froze to death mentally ill people. An internal survey at Rikers in 2014 found that nearly 80 percent of more than 100 inmates who suffered serious injuries during altercations with corrections officers over an 11-month period were mentally ill.