Investigation: Jail guards use force against prisoners with mental illness : Shots - Health News An investigation finds that corrections officers in Pennsylvania use physical force on people who may be unable to comply with orders due to a mental health condition.

In county jails, guards use pepper spray, stun guns to subdue people in mental crisis

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

People living with serious mental illnesses face an increased risk that they will end up in jail, where they're expected to follow orders or face painful consequences. An investigation by member station WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., found corrections officers often use physical force on people who may be unable to comply due to a mental health condition. Reporter Brett Sholtis spoke with a man who says he got hurt when what he really needed was help.

BRETT SHOLTIS, BYLINE: Adam Caprioli and I meet at a park in northeast Pennsylvania. It's near a small town in the mountains, and it's where Caprioli grew up.

ADAM CAPRIOLI: So we are in Cresco, Pa. It's, like, a beautiful, wooded type of area, with lots of things to do outside in nature.

SHOLTIS: But lately, it's been hard for him to enjoy these simple things. The 30-year-old lives with bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder. And last October, he called 911 during a panic attack. It wasn't his first time making this kind of call, but this time police took him to jail. There, his anxiety got worse.

CAPRIOLI: I keep asking for help, keep asking for a nurse. They just keep walking by. And this went on for, like, four hours of them just, like, ignoring me. And I'm, like, freaking out.

SHOLTIS: Similar situations have played out across the state. About half of the people who end up in county jails in Pennsylvania have a significant mental health diagnosis. For Caprioli, after hours in jail, he panicked and tied a T-shirt around his neck. Jail records show that four officers wearing body armor burst into his cell. They took him to the ground. In the records, officers say Caprioli was resisting. One of them shot him three times in the back with a pepper ball launcher.

CAPRIOLI: And then they took the pepper gun down from, like, point blank and just like, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. And I was already, like, detained.

SHOLTIS: Eventually, he was taken to the hospital, where Caprioli says they assessed his physical injuries, but he didn't get help from a mental health professional. Hours later, he was back in jail, where he stayed for five days. He was eventually convicted of public drunkenness and had to pay a fine. And Caprioli acknowledges that he makes his problems worse when he uses alcohol or drugs. But he says that doesn't justify how he was treated in the jail.

CAPRIOLI: Like, that's not something that should be going on at all. All I needed was one person just to be like, hey, how are you doing? Like, what - are you OK? What's going on - and never got that, even to the last day.

SHOLTIS: WITF looked at records from 25 county jails in Pennsylvania for the last quarter of 2021. The idea was to see how often guards used pepper spray, stun guns, hoods and other control methods. They show almost 1 in 3 uses of force involved a person who was having a mental health crisis or who had a known mental health condition. In 20% of cases, guards used force on someone who was attempting suicide, hurting themselves or talking about doing so.

Northwestern law professor Jamelia Morgan says this can be traumatizing or even dangerous. Morgan says the culture of jails prioritizes the security of the staff over everything else, including a prisoner's health concerns.

JAMELIA MORGAN: And that's the problem. Can we ever get health care? Can we ever get accessible prisons? Many say no because of this conflict with security.

SHOLTIS: She says officers may distrust anything a prisoner does. And she says guards often think prisoners are faking illness. And that belief makes it easier for them to respond with aggressive force that can cause more injury. This has led to prisoner deaths. And Morgan says communities need to reimagine what jails are.

And a few places are trying. In Chicago, Sheriff Tom Dart oversees the Cook County Jail. He's completely redesigned the facility, putting psychologists in charge instead of wardens.

TOM DART: I said to myself, if our society is going to insist on me being a mental health hospital, I'm going to be the best mental health hospital.

SHOLTIS: Dart's team moved a lot of the prisoners out of cells to a campus-like setting with classes and job training, preparing them for life after they leave. He says Cook County Jail has also changed its rules around when to use force on someone having a mental health crisis.

DART: I just don't see how Tasers and OC spray can do anything other than aggravate issues and can only be used as the last conceivable option.

SHOLTIS: But this is the exception. In most parts of the country, wardens and county leaders say they're in this tough position where they have to take anyone who police bring to their door. They say any solution has to include helping people before they have a mental health crisis that lands them in jail.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Sholtis in Cresco, Pa.

KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with WITF and Kaiser Health News.

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