The Most Promising Reform

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Posted in: Criminal Law

Many years ago, I was a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis. One day, a young woman named Rebecca came into my office. She was a student at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. She and my law clerk were friends, and he had encouraged her to talk with me about her brother, Riley.[*]

For no apparent reason, Riley had knocked his mother to the ground, beat her severely, kicked her in the head, and chased her into the basement of their Wisconsin home. She eventually escaped out a window and called the local police, who arrested him and took him to jail.

The prosecutor charged Riley with assault. He eventually pled guilty, and a judge sentenced him to four years in prison. In prison, he started a fight and they put him in disciplinary segregation. That’s where he killed himself. For some, that was the end of the story.

But I learned long ago that in the criminal justice system very little happens “for no apparent reason.”

Riley’s mind was not his own. Something angry prowled the darkness, like a beast slinking at the edge of civilization, appearing unbidden and disappearing unseen, a presence more felt than understood. The pills the doctors gave him did a pretty good job keeping the beast at bay, but they made Riley feel sluggish when he needed to be sharp. “He used to say it made his head feel like a brick,” Rebecca told me.

And the pills weren’t a cure—there is no cure for schizophrenia. They worked just well enough to let Riley believe the animal was gone, but not so well as to make it so. And since they made him feel thick and stupid, sometimes he’d stop taking them. For a while, things were okay. But that never lasted long.

The beast always came back, and battled with Riley for control of his thoughts. “It was like there was always some other conversation going on in his head that we couldn’t hear,” Rebecca told me. Paranoia was a sign he was losing the fight. Why was everyone on his case all the time? He didn’t need those damn pills. There was nothing wrong with him.

After he beat his mother, it seemed like Riley didn’t even know what he had done. He called his girlfriend and when she asked after his mother, he told her he didn’t know where she was; maybe she was in the kitchen doing the dishes, he said. When Riley’s mother called the police, she asked them to take her son to the hospital. But the beating was far too serious and they took him to jail, where he was charged with felony assault.

When Riley made his first appearance, the court appointed a public defender who immediately recognized that Riley was not well. He and the prosecutor joined in asking for a competency evaluation, and the judge shipped Riley to a hospital, where a doctor said he was incompetent to stand trial. In the controlled environment of the hospital, Riley went back on his meds, which restored his competency and allowed the criminal charges to resume.

His lawyer wanted to pursue an insanity defense but Riley wanted none of it. “He hated if anyone said he was mentally ill,” Rebecca told me. “‘I’m not crazy,’ he’d say. ‘Don’t you call me crazy.’” Riley fired his lawyer and asked the judge to appoint someone else. Riley’s second lawyer abandoned the mental illness claim and allowed him to plead guilty. At his sentencing, Riley’s mother—the victim—pleaded with the judge that he not send Riley to prison. He’s sick, she said, and needs help. The prosecutor agreed, and joined her request.

The judge put it to Riley: in-patient treatment for his mental illness or prison for his crime? “Better a criminal than crazy,” Riley told him. The judge obliged.

We’ll never know for sure why Riley stopped taking his medication in prison. But he was young and small. He’d never been in prison before, and now found himself in a maximum security facility. I suspect he was terrified, and thought he had to be on top of his game to avoid being victimized. For whatever reason, he stopped taking the pills, and the beast quickly came back, bolder and more dangerous than ever. “Decompensation” is the medical word.

Within days, Riley picked a fight with a much larger inmate in the cafeteria, once more “for no apparent reason.” The prison put him in solitary confinement, where he spent nearly 24 hours a day in a tiny, windowless cell. He had no contact with another human being apart from the occasional guard or doctor at the door.

The only thing in his cell, other than a cold, steel bunk and sink, was an observation camera affixed to the ceiling. Nobody told Riley the camera was broken, and nobody seemed to worry about putting a paranoid inmate in a cell with a camera. He stopped eating. He stopped sleeping.

By now the beast roamed freely, and Riley was fast losing even the illusion of control. His letters became increasingly paranoid and irrational; the writing was a barely readable scrawl. They were “doing him dirty,” he wrote, and talking about him to other inmates. They were going to kill him. He refused to leave his cell.

His mother called the prison to warn them that he was deteriorating. His sister called the warden and told him she was worried that Riley might try to hurt himself. The prison doctors said he was fine. Offender denies all suicidal ideation.

One afternoon, Riley covered the small window in his cell door with a piece of paper, ripped his bedding into strips, wet them in the sink, and fashioned them into a noose. Then he tied one end around his neck and the other around a metal poll in his bed. The strips tightened as they dried and slowly strangled him. By the time he died, he had lost a quarter of his body weight. He was 26.

A colleague and I represented Rebecca and her mother in a lawsuit against the prison psychologist and psychiatrist who had ignored Riley as he slowly, visibly succumbed to the demon. The jury awarded a big chunk of money, which helped give Riley’s young son a stable home as he grew up without a father. But of course the family would give it all back for the time they never had with Riley.

* * *

Solitary confinement is pitilessly cruel. For many people, even a short stay in solitary is enough to produce unendurable misery; for the mentally ill, it is particularly heartless. As you read this, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 people in solitary in the United States. All that one could want to know about the practice—including its human cost, its punitive stupidity, and its moral bankruptcy—is now widely available, including at the very comprehensive site maintained by the ACLU Stop Solitary Campaign.

Today, one of the most gratifying trends in criminal justice is the gathering consensus that segregation in prison must be kept to the absolute minimum. The Department of Justice issued new standards on solitary that, if implemented fully and followed by the states, will take a long step toward reform. President Obama recently denounced the practice in the Washington Post. Several states, including Colorado, Washington, Mississippi, and Maine, have made great progress in cutting back on solitary. As regular readers know, I am deeply skeptical of what passes for criminal justice reform in the United States today. Yet if we accomplish no more than to end solitary, we can claim something like victory.

[*] I have changed the names to protect their privacy.

  • Ted Harvatin

    I can’t believe we don’t launder their linens on a daily basis, turn up their beds at night and leave a chocolate on their pillows.

  • J.E. Tarrant

    I think the article is completely missing the larger issue. Kudos to you for suing the prison, though, not only am I sure you took a nice 1/3 cut of the award (since it seems very unlikely that they could have paid any of your fees upfront), which, after all, is what really matters, you have also managed to contribute to the problem. Prisons are seriously understaffed places that house extremely dangerous people in close proximity to each other. The are full of violence, the staff are routinely assaulted by the inmates, and are subject to not only the constant threat of physical assault, but all forms of verbal harassment as well. Of course, prisons are also full of people with anti-social personality disorder, which, amongst other things, is characterized by manipulation, charisma, and unpredictability. People with anti-social personality disorder frequently come from family were the condition is prevalent, so I have no idea why the warden and psychiatrist didn’t immediately jump to the desires of an inmates sister and accommodate his every whim. I’m sure that prison psychiatrist probably only has 3 or 4 patients, and isn’t insanely overworked trying to treat hundreds of people who may or may not want help, who might try to kill her if given the opportunity, and who constantly try to manipulate the psychiatrist in order to get medication, privileges, or just for fun. Thankfully there’s caring individuals like our President, who lives in a fortress and is guarded by the most sophisticated personal security detail in world history, and the justice department, who also get similar benefits, waving their hands and telling the people who actually put themselves in harms way how to do their jobs, because that gives more ammunition for attorneys to be able to second and sue, and after all, those commissions are what really matters. Double-plus good!