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Black Women With Mental Illness Suffer Horrific Abuses In LA County Jails

On the heels of the Justice Department’s settlement agreement forcing Los Angeles County jails to adopt a number of reforms aimed at improving conditions for inmates, a new report by Dignity and Power Now [PDF] explores the horrifying human rights abuses endured by black female inmates in the county.

The report, entitled “Breaking the Silence,” features the testimonies of seven formerly incarcerated women and two former psychiatric workers from the county, and covers experiences from the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the California Institute for Women.

At the intersection of black and female

Black women are over-represented in Los Angeles’ jails. The report points out the example of CRDF, where black female inmates make up 31% of the jail population, even though they only represent 9.9% of all women in Los Angeles County. The rate at which black women are incarcerated is also increasing, and female inmates suffer from mental illness at a higher rate than men, placing this population at heightened risk for abuse and an increased need of care and treatment.

The stereotypes applied to black women by jail staff (and society at large) directly contributed to their corrosive environment. The report explains that since the time of chattel slavery, black women have been stereotyped as masculine, hyper-aggressive and dangerous. They have been labeled bad mothers and sexual deviants that are dishonest and immoral. These racist stereotypes live on today and thrive in LA County jails, enabling their abuse by devaluing their lives. The women interviewed in the report stated they faced a barrage of verbal and physical assaults based on their mental health status, race and gender.

One inmate interviewed for the report named Catherine described being placed on 24-hour lockdown and denied access to the day room for weeks at a time because guards said she and other black inmates were “too ghetto.” It’s important to note that this does not just mean the women were denied recreation; it means they were also deprived access to the telephones, out-of-cell meals and showers. White and Asian female inmates, on the other hand, were kept on a separate floor and given regular access to the day room.

Black women in LA County jails said their access to medication and medical professionals was routinely denied, restricted and/or abused. They were forced to live in squalid and humiliating conditions, in cells with feces smeared on the walls, clogged toilets and unwashed clothes. They were not even provided with basic menstrual supplies, and in some cases were forced to bleed on themselves while stripped naked and locked in solitary confinement. Others were subject to invasive and unnecessary procedures at the whim of jail staff.

If black female inmates attempted to get the attention of guards through the emergency button in their cells, the buttons were deactivated and they were placed on 24-hour lockdown. In one case, a pregnant woman began experiencing premature contractions due to lead contamination of the jail’s water supply. Her cellmate attempted to notify authorities but the emergency button had been turned off. They had to scream for help until someone came. Elsewhere in the report, a black woman who was eight months pregnant was slammed into a door and then into the floor, where she was beaten savagely by jail staff.

Pregnant and mentally ill black women had it perhaps worst of all, the former finding themselves shackled and beaten, the latter placed in solitary for extended periods of time. Such conditions put these women at heightened risk of mental anguish and distress, as well as suicide.

Nina’s story

Nina was 47 when she spent seven harrowing months in LA County Jails. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression prior to her incarceration. She attempted suicide after being denied medical treatment for weeks in an attempt to “silence the voices in her head.” She rushed past a medic who came to take her blood pressure, jumping off the 2nd floor of her cell block. She survived, but her injuries and the mental anguish did not earn her any sympathy from those supposedly charged with protecting her.

During her time as an inmate in CRDF, Nina told Dignity and Power Now that she spent weeks confined to her cell for all but thirty minutes a day. She was not given toothpaste or soap and rarely had access to the showers. She suffered serious verbal abuse on the basis of her race and mental health status. After she attempted suicide, she was placed on suicide watch and chained to her bed for two weeks in the hospital. There, staff forced her to urinate in a bedpan in front of male guards and bathed her only once in the span of two weeks. Trapped in her own filth, locked to her bed, Nina was so humiliated she stopped eating.

Her abuse continued after she was transferred to Twin Towers Correctional Facility. No doctors, medical or mental health professionals were permitted to see her. Such restricted access to medication and clinical staff was widespread. Dignity and Power Now spoke to health workers who described ‘traumatizing’ conditions in which mentally ill women were only allowed to see clinicians for ten minutes every six weeks. In some cases, they were only able to see a clinician once in six months. Inadequate staffing levels forced some clinicians to care for 40-70 inmates at one time, and without legitimate oversight measures in place, many slipped through the cracks.

The report states that jail officials fed Nina generic pain killers and anti-anxiety medication in an effort to subdue her and end her complaints of mistreatment. Other inmates described scenes where women were so heavily medicated that they walked around like zombies. Others were under-medicated and suffered visibly from their ailments. Some were incorrectly diagnosed with more illness than they really had, and were improperly prescribed medication as such.

Jail officials placed Nina in a cell where the lights remained on at all times. She required a wheelchair to get around, but the jail only had one for all the inmates to share. This resulted in her missing two court dates and being forced to crawl on her hand and knees, through her filthy jail cell, to reach the toilet. They permitted her leave her cell for only one hour a day. Today, she suffers from a permanent limp and mental anguish from her time behind bars.

Violations and reforms

The report rightfully notes that the treatment of black women in LA County Jails constitutes legal and human rights violations on multiple levels, violating laws on a local, domestic and international scale. There appears to be some movement to remedy the abuses at these facilities with the announcement of the Justice Department’s settlement agreement.

Under the terms of the settlement [PDF], LA County jails must increase training for staff, especially with regard to suicide prevention and providing accurate intake screening for mental and physical health needs. It calls for strengthened medical records and reporting and the greater use of mental health referrals in an attempt to get inmates greater access to clinicians. The settlement also requires increased staffing and updated housing and living quarters, as well as increased property privileges for inmates. There are provisions for specialized ‘mental health housing’ units and access to psychotropic medication to be administered in the appropriate dosages. There are also requirements for greater controls on the use of physical restraints and a refined Use of Force policy.

This is a promising start, but there are some areas where there will still be a need for safeguards, specifically for women in the county’s jails. Aside from providing for basic needs like reproductive healthcare, Dignity and Power Now recommends county jails start to collect “disaggregated, comprehensive, publicly accessible data on LA County detainees’ race, gender and mental health status.” They also recommended that the county pass a “Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents so that parents and their children are better prepared to reunite.”

In the end, though, these are all bandaids on a much larger national jail crisis that Dignity and Power Now addresses directly in their report. They call for a halt to jail construction, “especially construction that occurs at the expense of community-based mental health care services.” They also demand a general phasing-out of incarceration, redirecting funds to community programming.

Jamie Hall and Tenisha Martin, two activists with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, interrupted Jeb Bush at a rally in Las Vegas on August 12, 2015. (Desiree Kane)
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.