The Prison Life

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

The Nation looks at a string of prison suicides in Pennsylvania.

By the time John McClellan Jr. was found dead inside Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Cresson last May, he had long been categorized as “special needs” for his history of addiction and mental instability. Yet prisoners and staff say the 42-year-old inmate was not living in one of the facility’s treatment units but in the Restricted Housing Unit, or RHU—otherwise known as solitary confinement.

Two months earlier, McClellan had written a letter to his father, a Philadelphia police officer, saying that five correctional officers had assaulted him, then filed false charges against him. John McClellan Sr. had already contacted an attorney; threats and abuse from guards were allegedly so frequent his son kept a makeshift calendar on legal-sized notebook paper to keep track. A former SCI Cresson prisoner, Tim Everard, who says he spent time in a neighboring RHU cell, recalls seeing guards kicking the younger McClellan’s cell door, calling him names and goading him to kill himself. When Everard told the manager of the ward that McClellan seemed suicidal, Everard says she brushed him off, saying of the impulse to commit suicide, “If he’s going to act on it, he’s going to act on it.”

On December 1 the Justice Department announced an investigation into SCI Cresson as well as SCI Pittsburgh in response to allegations of prisoner abuse. Since then, another inmate, who reportedly asked repeatedly for and was denied mental health treatment, has committed suicide inside SCI Cresson. An investigation by The Nation uncovered details of the claims at the center of the probe, through interviews with current and former Department of Corrections (DOC) employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. At least three sources with knowledge of the mental health procedures at SCI Cresson have provided corroborating evidence to the Justice Department, claiming that they were threatened with physical harm or false charges by prison authorities if they raised concerns.

Filed under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, more than thirty similar investigations have been launched by the Justice Department since 1996. Most involve jails holding pretrial prisoners, and at least ten involve claims of insufficient mental healthcare. The process is generally diplomatic rather than prosecutorial; the DOJ publicly releases findings and suggests changes. Institutions usually agree to abide by the recommendations. The DOJ can sue those that don’t; in extreme cases this can lead to a court order forcing a prison to operate under the supervision of a Special Master (as in the case of California, where the state’s entire prison healthcare system was put into receivership).

The investigation into SCI Cresson could have important implications beyond Pennsylvania. In addition to determining whether it “provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness [and] failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm,” according to the DOJ’s official release, investigators will also consider the practice of subjecting mentally ill prisoners to “excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” with its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even if the particular abuse leveled at McClellan is found to be an aberration, holding mentally unstable prisoners in solitary confinement is a common practice in prisons and jails across the country.

Meanwhile, the “Angola Three” are now approaching 40 years of solitary confinement.

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24 Responses to “The Prison Life”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    Its sad that they are going after the prison for its “environment” but not the guards for beating up prisoners.

  2. #2 |  Miranda | 

    As someone who worked in a prison system, this is not at all surprising. In the state prisons where I worked, if you failed in your suicide attempt, they give you a disciplinary case.

  3. #3 |  CyniCAl | 

    “McClellan had written a letter to his father, a Philadelphia police officer…”

    I stopped reading at that point. Rotten fruit of a poisonous tree.

  4. #4 |  Radley Balko | 

    So anyone related to a cop deserves to be beaten and tortured?

  5. #5 |  Jim | 

    Not necessarily, but there is a Schadenfreude factor to it nonetheless, no? How many of daddy’s arrestees over the years got similar treatment? And would he even give a damn?

  6. #6 |  SJE | 

    #3 and #5: Are you calling for the rule of law and common decency to be applied equally? Are you focused on justice, or revenge? If you see all cops and their families as enemies, and deserving of no rights, you are just adopting the same twisted mindset that drives the worst parts of law enforcement.

  7. #7 |  johnl | 

    Wasn’t it reservist corrections workers from PA who messed up Abu Graib? By running it like a PA prison?

  8. #8 |  SJE | 

    #7: It was the CIA and senior command, going all the way the white house, who legalized torture and encouraged its use. The reservists got the blame, however.

  9. #9 |  CyniCAl | 

    No, I am not calling for anything. I simply reserve my giving a shit for non-cops and their offspring. If cops want to be considered an elite class, let their own worry about them. They CERTAINLY don’t give a shit about me or mine.

    You can’t force me to care.

  10. #10 |  JohnJ | 

    Well, this is more evidence that death by imprisonment is the less sympathetic alternative to the death penalty. At least the death penalty has a rigorous appeals process. Those sentenced to death by imprisonment have no other way out. What a cruel punishment.

  11. #11 |  JOR | 

    #6 The rule of law is dead and has been for decades (at least), so it’s a non-issue. The cops have shown how effective a tribalist/social warfare approach is to getting what they want. Enemies of the police state they’ve constructed and are constructing still are not going to beat them without adopting the same mindset.

  12. #12 |  CyniCAl | 

    Been over this many times. The rule of law is a myth. Laws consist of words which must be interpreted by humans. Therefore, only humans can rule.

  13. #13 |  picachu | 

    Prisons are often the places where society’s worst most despciable inhumane monsters…find employment.

  14. #14 |  croaker | 

    @6 And the pigs have no one to blame but themselves.

  15. #15 |  SJE | 

    Preaching non-violence and rule of law is entirely self interested. The problem with degrading your adversaries and advocating violence is that the cops are a step ahead: they have the guns, and are willing to use them.

  16. #16 |  CyniCAl | 

    Show me one instance in this thread where someone advocated violence.

    Yeah, I thought so.

    As for degrading my adversaries, I’ll answer the charge. The truth is still a valid defense.

    I’ll do what I want, and you do the same SJE.

  17. #17 |  el coronado | 

    Can’t speak for anyone else, but my utter indifference to Junior’s suffering in prison and/or Daddy the Cop’s anguish stems from just 3 little facts:
    1) Had the suicide in question been just some unknown Darrel, Jose, or Rakeem with no clout/family/connections, this never would have gotten into print.
    2) Dad the Cop doesn’t seem to have ever had a beef with the PA prison system *before* they started fucking with *his* son. Odd…..why might that be, I wonder?
    3) Even though the article tells of prison “officials” repeatedly and purposefully endangering his son, as well as letting their resident cons know of Dad the Cop’s name/add/etc., the article seems to infer a most unusual fact: Nowhere does it mention that Daddy the Cop has quit his 6-figure job with the LEO mafia – nor has he announced he’ll be refusing his gold-plated pension when it’s due.

    The system _killed his son_, and *he’s (apparently) still working for them & taking their money*. There’s a word where I come from for “men” like that. Outrage for Dad the Cop’s loss? Pity? Sympathy? I’ll pass, thanks. Fuck ‘im.

  18. #18 |  el coronado | 

    Imply, Infer…Tomayto, Tomahto

  19. #19 |  Rick H. | 

    Really? So-called anarchists are cheering for prison torture against the emotionally disturbed… because of who the guy’s father is? Whatever your political views or abstract legal theories, displaying a taste for collective punishment marks you as a fucking asshole in my book. How about we reserve our schadenfreude for actual hypocrites and evildoers, not their families.

  20. #20 |  albatross | 

    Sympathy fr the father is not necessarily the same as sympathy for the son. That said, it’s an outrage no matter how common it is and who it happens to. The architects of our torture policy should spend the rest of their lives in prison for it, but shouldn’t be tortured to death like the unluckiest of their victims.

  21. #21 |  SJE | 

    CynicAL: The consistent thread is that violence is OK against any one in law enforcement because they deserve it. Cheering thugs in prison beating up an emotionally disturbed man because his dad is in law enforcement….and you say you are not advocating violence? That’s not just advocating violence, its f*ing nuts.

    Degrading your opponents, whether you think that’s right or not, is often a tactical error. Once you see the other side as enemy, it forces YOU to adopt scorched earth tactics. You rarely get what you want, because the other side will fight you all the way.

    So far, the bad cops are losing their battle to do things their way, as the vast bulk of society is finally wising up to their B.S. Becoming some militia wannabee is just playing into their hands.

  22. #22 |  CyniCAl | 

    I think rick h is a pretty cool guy, eh has zero reading comprehension and doesnt afraid of anything.

  23. #23 |  CyniCAl | 

    SJE, you are delusional. Just admit you’re wrong already.

    Calling something what it is does not equal cheering for it fucktard.

  24. #24 |  el coronado | 

    “Bad cops are losing their battle to do things their way”?? How ya figure? Read this blog much?