Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mental Health in Prisons and the GEO Group

By Jenny Landreth

The news that GEOCare, a private for-profit company, is hovering around the prisoner mental health honeypot in North Carolina is an extremely worrisome development. Mental health in prisons tends to fall at or near the very bottom of the list of priorities in prison management– and likewise in prison budgets– not least because a large percentage of the typical prison population suffer from mental health issue. This covers everything from anxiety and depression, to self-harm, insomnia, suicide attempts, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, uncontrollable anger and violent impulses associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and eating disorder. To be honest, if a prisoner is not suffering from some sort of despair related condition whilst incarcerated in the US prison system, they are doing remarkably well. Some prisoners are clearly more robust mentally than others, and it cannot be denied that these prisoners are likely to become the strongest of the population, sometimes to the point of bullying of vulnerable, mentally ill prisoners.

Tough Lives
Bullying of those with mental health issues is as common outside of prison walls as it is on the inside. Many criminals have suffered lives of appalling neglect, which has stunted their ability to feel anything approaching a normal response to others. When you think of these prisoners, think also of the little three year old child they once were, being abused, ignored, going hungry, being battered and shouted at. Any child being brought up in this sort of impoverished manner, often with parents who are poor and criminalised, will be seriously scarred by the experience, and will be developmentally and socially underdeveloped. Abused children often go on to be bullies themselves, in response to their own feelings of powerlessness. It’s not an excuse for such behaviour, but it goes a long way to explaining it. Beginning life with a poor home background is a huge disadvantage, and often the young teenagers who end up behind bars never had a chance at a better future. The thought of mental health services taking over the care of damaged and vulnerable prisoners – the bullies as well as the bullied, beggars belief. In the words of Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, "It just boggles my mind that folks think a for-profit private company with shareholders can perform a more efficient, better service at a cheaper rate than state employees." Quite so.

Forensic Psychiatry
Although GEOCare is circling mainly around the care of those prisoners who have committed serious mental health related crimes, such as murder, rape and violent assault, it won’t be long before they are pitching for wider mental health service provision.  In this business model, medical care programs become commodities and there is money to be made for shareholders. The state is considering the privatization of the whole of the prison health care system already. GEOCare is part of the GEO Group, which is the second-largest private prison company in the US. GEO Group has been charged on a number of occasions regarding the ill-treatment of prisoners and their own employees. They were fined $1.1 million in recent months by the state of New Mexico, for failing to adequately staff one of its prisons, putting the lives of staff and inmates at risk.

Fit to Run Prisons?
Questions must be asked about GEO Group’s fitness to run prisons, let alone a sophisticated forensic psychiatry service. Under the GEO Group’s management, a prison riot occurred in the New Castle Correctional Facility in Indiana in April 2007; eight prisoner deaths occurred at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County (STATE?), with subsequent lawsuits claiming negligence by GEO Group in the medical treatment and supervision of prisoners. The number of cases against the company, and presumably the attendant costs, led the GEO Group to pull out of the facility in 2008; that same year, Delaware County Jail (PA) was the site of the death of Sandy Morgan, a schizophrenic woman who died after not being given medication for a thyroid condition; in another 2008 incident Kenneth Keith Kallenbach also died after being denied medication for cystic fibrosis. Multiple cases of abuse and negligence were highlighted at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, including sexual abuse by staff, staff smuggling drugs in for inmates and the denial of medical treatment and education. The inmates’ ages ranged between 13 and 22 years of age. The list goes on and on. Now, GEO Group wants to take over the most complex form of mental health care for some of North Carolina’s most dangerous and disturbed criminals. The prospect is, frankly, terrifying both for the patients and the wider community.

Jenny Landreth is a freelance writer from England who has written for a number of journals and textbooks on the issue of workers' rights often using pay per click services to advertise her message.


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