Timothy Souders, a mentally ill inmate at Jackson prison, died of dehydration last August after being chained to a steel bed for almost four days. After Souders’s death, a judge ruled that Michigan needs far-reaching mental health reform. In response, Gov. Jennifer Granholm reluctantly created a commission to investigate the state’s prison system at the end of 2006 and made general mention of prison reform in her State of the State address last week. However, few reforms have materialized, and the state’s prison system is still wedded to a deplorable ideology that neglects mentally ill inmates and focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Sarah Royce

Suicidal and suffering from manic depression, the 21-year-old Souders was sent to the Jackson facility – which has just one psychiatrist – after being booked for shoplifting. He was left to guards who, as the judge noted, tried to torture him into reformation. Although Souders’ death is a telling example of despicable conditions in Michigan prisons, it isn’t an isolated incident.

A report last Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” highlighted numerous cases of similar treatment of the roughly 24 percent of Michigan’s 50,000 prisoners with histories of mental health problems. Among the numerous incidents, the most prevalent were cases of extended restraint, dehydration and failure to treat and protect mentally ill prisoners – who, in some cases, gouged out their own eyes or disemboweled themselves.

Aside from being an issue of individual neglect and under-equipped staff, the problem is also structural. A large part of Michigan’s incapacity to deal with mental health patients has precipitated since former Republican Gov. John Engler closed state-run psychiatric hospitals in the 1990s. In a 10-year period, Engler shut down 10 of Michigan’s 15 state-run facilities, justifying the policy with rhetoric about the ability of private facilities to provide superior treatment.

But private facilities never filled the gap: Engler’s policy effectively threw mentally ill patients out on the street. Many ended up in prison, transforming the correctional system into an asylum. The situation worsened with the closing of the independent Corrections Ombudsman’s Office three years ago. For 25 years, the ombudsman’s office monitored prison standards and budgets, but it was abolished by the state legislature to save $500,000 per year in state spending.

These issues regarding mentally ill inmates are compounded by Michigan’s generally dysfunctional corrections system. With a recidivism rate of 48 percent, almost half of all paroled prisoners in the state end up back in prison.

The most important thing for the state to do right now is to reinforce the preventive programs cut in recent years. It’s obvious that Engler’s privatization policies were ineffective. Revamping the state-run psychiatric hospitals should be a priority. Also, a recent study of Michigan’s repeat offenders found that nearly half of all parolees who committed another offense lacked a high school diploma, were unemployed or were substance abusers. Strengthening programs that aid in these three areas is crucial to keeping prisons from overcrowding.

Along with preventative measures, the state needs to move from an ideology of punishment to one of rehabilitation. Granholm’s $2 million increase to the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative in her budget proposal last Thursday is a solid start toward reformation. It provides prisoners with both a job and a support system upon parole. Since the program started in 2005, it has a recidivism rate 21 percent below the state norm. However, in order to reform the internal system, the state must recreate an ombudsman’s office that can oversee prison standards and maximize the limited budget. Michigan lawmakers have a responsibility to both the community and inmates to reform the state corrections system.

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