Mentally Ill People Are Dying in Prisons

Christopher Lopez
Still shot from the video of the final hours of Mr. Lopez’s life

One by one, mentally ill people are dying behind prison walls. One of the latest atrocities is the death of 35-year old Christopher Lopez, a man with schizoaffective disorder who died in the presence of Colorado Department of Corrections prison staff who were too busy laughing and making small talk to pay him any attention.

Christopher Lopez died of hyponatremia, a condition associated with dangerously low levels of sodium. It’s often thought to be caused by too much psychotropic medication. The lawsuit notes that in almost all instances, it’s a condition that’s treatable with prompt and adequate medical attention.

A six-hour video exists in which Mr. Lopez dies right before their eyes–a video that could “ultimately… pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of the dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body…”

The video provides “crystal clarity” of what happened in the final moments of Mr. Lopez’s life.

“We can see the defendants wheel a semiconscious Mr. Lopez down to the intake area of the prison and eventually remove him from the restraint chair. We have a ringside seat to watch Mr. Lopez suffer two grand mal seizures in front of the camera while the defendants idly stand about and discuss their views about Wal-Mart and other equally important topics, laughing and joking with one another, all the while completely ignoring the dying man in their charge. We watch as defendants leave Mr. Lopez face down, still fully restrained, on the floor of the intake cell, too weak to hold his own body upright. We see Mr. Lopez struggling to breathe for hours, and then, finally, we have an unobstructed view as Mr. Lopez takes his last breath, dying, half naked on the cold concrete floor of a prison cell– isolated and alone with no defendant caring whether he lived or died.”

The lawsuit alleges that the Colorado prison officials wanted to punish the prisoner for kicking a correctional officer and were “not interested in finding an appropriate treatment plan” for his severe mental illness.

The lawsuit notes that in the final hours of Mr. Lopez’s life, there were a minimum of 16 correctional staff members whom he encountered yet not one of them took any steps to save his life.

What many people may not realize is that this could happen to their mentally ill brother, sister, father, mother, son or daughter. Because the mental health system is in shambles, many people who would otherwise be in hospitals receiving the proper care and treatment are now in prison. Correctional staff, who receive little or no training about how to handle mentally ill people, are now in charge of their care and often view their symptoms or their unresponsiveness as behavioral problems that need to be punished, mostly with solitary confinement.

There are probably many more horror stories that we don’t hear about or that are buried within the pages of civil lawsuits. Until something is done, and we stop criminalizing mental illness, incarcerated mentally ill people will continue to suffer.

Find Out What The Criminalization Hypothesis Is

Criminalization Hypothesis

Have you ever heard of the criminalization hypothesis? The basic premise is that individuals with serious mental illnesses (SMI) (i.e. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mainly) are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system because they are committing crimes and being arrested for offenses because of their untreated illness symptoms.

Abramson, more than 30 years ago, was the first to discuss “criminalization.” He believed that individuals with SMI are being routed through the criminal justice system instead of the mental health system.  He observed that trend in the early 1970s.

Defenders

Defenders of the criminalization hypothesis cite studies (among others) such as Linda Teplin’s 1984 Chicago study in which it was found that individuals with a mental illness were arrested at a higher rate than those without a mental illness. The rate of arrests for individuals deemed mentally ill was 46.7 % compared to 27.9 % for individuals not appearing to have a mental illness. Teplin concluded from her study that individuals who appeared to be mentally ill had a higher probability of being arrested than those who did not. In her opinion, “clearly the way we treat our mentally ill is criminal.”

Not Everyone Agrees

Not everyone agrees with the criminalization hypothesis. Scientifically, it is difficult to prove. Within academic circles, it is a debate that may never be resolved.

In a future post, I will discuss alternative theories. What do you think?

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