JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A psychiatrist testified Thursday in a trial about prison conditions that solitary confinement at a Mississippi prison is "shockingly harsh and inhumane," saying long stays in solitary cause serious damage to the mentally ill inmates held there.
Dr. Terry Kupers testified that East Mississippi Correctional Facility needs to remove seriously mentally ill patients from solitary confinement. The Meridan Star reports that he said conditions in the prison's medical unit are as bad as solitary confinement. He also said prison guards at the privately run prison near Meridian are more "callous and uncaring" than at any prison he's ever examined.
"The conditions in solitary confinement at EMCF are the worst I have witnessed in my 40 years as a forensic psychiatrist investigating jail and prison conditions," Kupers said.
U.S. District Judge William Barbour Jr. is hearing testimony in the bench trial which began March 5. He will rule on whether conditions at the prison run by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
State lawyers have said at the trial that the prison has improved since lawyers for plaintiffs began scrutinizing it and that whatever failings it may have don't violate constitutional rights. The defense asked Kupers about past work on solitary confinement conditions, of which Kupers said he'd testified in roughly 30 cases. Kupers said he nearly always worked with plaintiffs in these cases.
Kupers testified that solitary confinement conditions at EMCF increased the risk of "lasting and serious psychological harm" when confinement lasted more than 14 days. Mental illness serves to exacerbate risks, and more than 80 percent of inmates at the prison are under some sort of care for mental illness.
"What we do know from the data is that the longer people spend in solitary confinement the worse the damage," Kupers said.
Kupers said he urgently advocated that prisoners with serious mental illnesses be removed from solitary confinement.
Plaintiffs presented photos showing what appeared to be burn marks on several solid metal doors throughout the facility. An illustration from the plaintiffs mapped out fires in Unit 5 and documented 66 fires between Feb. 25 and March 12, with a high of 11 fires on Feb. 26. "I've never been in a prison with so much evidence of fires or where walls weren't cleaned following a fire," Kupers said.
He added that inmates are also cutting themselves frequently, in a sign of distress. "I've never seen this degree of cutting in a correctional setting," he said.
Inmate Merlin Hill told the court Thursday that the prison frequently doesn't provide his seizure and schizophrenia medications. Hill visibly shook during his testimony, a side effect, he said, of not receiving his medication since Wednesday morning. The medication is supposed to be taken twice daily.
According to prison logs presented by the plaintiff, medical staff said Hill refused to take the medication. Hill testified that he had never refused medication and that staff frequently let his prescription "run out."
Once, after 13 days, Hill filed a sick log request for his appropriate medication. Hill, who had been at EMCF for nearly 17 years, said that every month he goes at least a few days without one of his prescribed medications.
"Sometimes I have murderous thoughts, suicidal thoughts, pain in my head," Hill said about withdrawals. "It's unbearable sometimes. I've got bad pain behind my eyes and I'm shaking pretty badly. The pain goes away after the first day or two without my (medication)."