ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Lewisburg federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania houses men who are considered some of the most dangerous of all prisoners. A few months ago, NPR reported on the violence and conditions there. Now a new lawsuit contends that the inmates get little to no mental health treatment and that those who come from other prisons where they were treated for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are stripped of their medications when they get to Lewisburg. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The lawsuit claims this is the treatment for a prisoner with a serious mental illness. They get crossword puzzles, Sudoku puzzles and positive thinking exercises like this one, mindfulness exercise number two.
STACEY LITNER: The exercise for this one tells people to pick up an object that they have lying around.
SHAPIRO: Stacey Litner of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs reads the instructions.
LITNER: Any mundane, everyday object will do, like a coffee cup or a pen, for example. Hold it in your hand, and allow yourself to be fully absorbed by the object. Observe it.
SHAPIRO: This is supposed to be meditative, which can be helpful for lots of people. But at Lewisburg...
Do men in solitary confinement in Lewisburg prison have coffee mugs?
LITNER: They do not have coffee mugs.
SHAPIRO: Do they have pens?
LITNER: Some of them get access to a pen if they're lucky. We've had problems with people saying they can't get access to writing materials, and there's nothing in their cell but their toilet and their sink.
SHAPIRO: Their toilet, their sink and their cellmate because Lewisburg has an odd kind of solitary confinement that can make mental illness worse. It's called double-cell solitary confinement.
PHILIP FORNACI: Which means two people are locked in a cell together 24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time without leaving the cell. That causes serious problems for anyone.
SHAPIRO: That's attorney Philip Fornaci of the Washington Lawyers' Committee.
FORNACI: For a person with a serious mental health issue, particularly paranoia, schizophrenia, things of that nature, it's almost completely intolerable to be caged in that kind of a situation indefinitely.
SHAPIRO: In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a policy that men with serious mental illness did not belong in a special management unit. That's the program for dangerous prisoners at Lewisburg. The lawsuit suggests how Lewisburg got around that rule because at about that same time, many prisoners there with serious mental illness were taken off medications and given a diagnosis of a lesser mental illness. Andra Gray says he too was denied medications even though at other prisons, he was treated for depression and schizophrenia.
ANDRA GRAY: They cut it off when I got to Lewisburg (laughter). I was getting medication until I got to Lewisburg.
SHAPIRO: Gray says when he asked for counseling, he was given packets of puzzles instead.
GRAY: And then they give you a book and say, color this, or draw this picture. Or cross this word out 'cause it's usually Sudoku and word search. You're not thinking about searching a word out. You're thinking about, you know, life or death. So how do a word or a puzzle help you at that point?
SHAPIRO: Gray says only after he came home from Lewisburg last year did he get the medications and therapy that now enable him to try to get his life back on track. Last year, new federal rules called for more mental health screening of inmates in solitary confinement. The lawsuit says men at Lewisburg still get little to no counseling. A spokesman with the Bureau of Prisons said the agency cannot comment on a current legal proceeding. But there has been some change. The number of men in the program at Lewisburg has dropped by about half in just the last year. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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