While I was reading and watching news coverage of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, I found myself thinking about the deaths of three prisoners who had severe mentally illnesses.
*Jerome Murdough, a 56 year-old former Marine with schizophrenia, died in his Rikers Island jail cell in New York after he was arrested for sleeping in a stairwell to avoid inclement weather. Temperatures in his cell exceeded more than a 100 degrees and, as one city official later put it, Murdough “literally baked to death.” The officers watching him were supposed to be periodically checking on him, but didn’t.
*Darren Rainey, age 50, was locked in a shower stall with steam and scalding water for more than an hour as punishment by correctional officers in Florida after he defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. His screams for help were ignored and when his lifeless body was removed from the stall, his skin showed signs of “slippage,” which happens when badly burned flesh literally begins falling off. Rainey had a mental illness and was serving time for cocaine possession.
*Christopher Lopez, age 35, died from severe hyponatremia, a condition that develops when a person’s sodium levels fall fatally low. It’s been suggested that Lopez had been given too much psychotropic medication, which caused his body to begin shutting down. According to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by his family, several guards, nurses, and a mental health clinician stood outside Lopez’s cell, where he was lying manacled on the floor, talking casually and laughing while he suffered a series of seizures. He had schizophrenia.
When I wrote my book CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, there were more than 360,000 individuals with mental disorders locked in our country’s jails and prisons, many for minor crimes. Recent studies show that number has not changed. If anything, it has gotten higher.
The deaths of these three men are tragic examples of why individuals with mental illnesses should not be locked in jails and prisons. But our country’s refusal to fund community mental health services, enact programs that will stop the criminalization of persons who are sick, and our stubborn refusal to build appropriate mental hospitals where mentally ill persons who are violent can be safely held and receive meaningful treatment, all but guarantees future tragedies.
None of these three deaths received the national attention that Michael Brown’s death sparked. That’s unfortunate. Few of the national organizations that represent individuals with mental illnesses expressed public outrage over these deaths — there was no equivalent of the Rev. Al Sharpton speaking out on national television. That’s indefensible.
In spite of this, more than 150,000 Americans have signed a petition asking the Justice Department to investigate Darren Rainey’s horrific death in a 180 degree shower stall. You can sign the petition here. The release of a video and photographs of Lopez’s death also have alarmed Colorado residents. New York is re-examining how it treats its mentally ill prisoners too.
Small steps, but steps.
It’s easy to become discouraged — given how many of these deaths continue happening. But that should not keep us from speaking out.
In his eulogy at Brown’s funeral, Sharpton said, “We are required to leave here today and change things.”
That same declaration applies to those of us who care about mental health reform. If there is one issue that all of the different fractions in the mental health community should be able to join together on it is this: we need to stop the inappropriate incarceration of people with mental illnesses.
Every such death deserves our attention and outrage.