News | Mental illness | February 5, 2012

By Jeff Gerritt, Detroit Free Press columnist

Criminal Negligence: This is the first in an occasional series of columns and editorials on mental illness and Michigan’s criminal justice and mental health care system.

On Jan. 10 of last year, corrections officers at Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility found 19-year-old Kevin DeMott banging his head against a bloodstained cell wall. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 11, inmate No. 608233 had languished in solitary for four months, sometimes without the psychotropic medication his psychiatrist prescribed. Normally 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds, he had lost 25 pounds.

Officers ordered DeMott to stop banging his head, but he continued. After DeMott told officers who tried to restrain him that they would have to kill him, he was hit twice with pepper spray, then manacled in belly chains and leg irons, according to a critical incident report. Soon after, prison authorities charged him with disobeying a direct order, resulting in 30 days’ loss of privileges.

Too often, the Department of Corrections punishes instead of treats mental illness. Michigan’s 32 prisons hold thousands of mentally ill inmates, including as many as 200 isolated in segregation cells, where they are locked up for 23 hours a day, or longer, unable to participate in treatment programs, and sometimes cut off from the medications prescribed to help manage their illnesses.

Read>> Mentally ill get punishment instead of treatment