Bedlam Behind Bars: wringing its hands over abuses in the US prison system

Matthew Hill, “Bedlam Behind Bars” (BBC Panorama, 7 July 2014)

In a country that was founded as an ambitious social experiment in democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and which is now devolving into a severe technocratic and brutal corporate police state, the weakest and most vulnerable victims turn out to be the mentally ill. This BBC Panorama episode investigates the increasing use of the public prison system as a substitute mental asylum network.

Reporter Hilary Andersson visits state prisons in Chicago and Texas to document incidents of violence, torture and other abuses committed by prison guards and wardens against prisoners with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. With a mix of interviews with prisoners, lawyers and mental health professionals, on-site filming and videos made by the prisons themselves, overlaid by voice-overs by Andersson and some of her interviewees, the episode reveals the dismal state of the prisons in which mentally ill people are held, bullied and beaten by guards. Prisoners’s cells are often filthy with mould growing inside or raw sewage seeping in. People may be kept in solitary confinement for hours at a time. Guards chain one man, naked, to his bed and force him to eat lying down with his wrists and ankles in chains; some days later, the man dies from heat exhaustion and dehydration in his cell. Other prisoners are punished with excessive and dangerous use of pepper spray by the guards. The irony is that earlier in the twentieth century, state hospitals established for the mentally ill were often just as bleak and brutal as the prisons today are. The asylums were later closed and community-based care institutions were established. Over decades however, as funding for such places was withdrawn by succeeding Federal, State and county governments, patients ended up on the streets or in the care of families, and many people were scooped up by public prisons through some incident involving a public disturbance or violence.

Although Hilary Andersson may be a good investigative interviewer, the program doesn’t push very far as to why the imprisonment of mentally ill people is still tolerated by Federal, State and county governments. Many interviewees who are in charge of the prisons deny that a problem exists or appear to make excuses for the prisons. Lawyers for prisoners talk of obtaining justice for their clients but no-one seems to question the situation where mentally ill people or people with hallucinations and delusions are ending up behind bars when they need medical help and treatment that prison employees deny. Curiously police officers appear as extras rather than as the shock troops of a brutal system and only one is interviewed. Another aspect of the prison system missed by the BBC Panorama program is the growth of private prisons whose operations are kept secret from governments and the public, and whose corporate owners often finance politicians’ election campaigns.

At the end of the program, Andersson and her team contact the Department of Justice with statistics on the numbers of mentally ill people who have died in the prison system but are rebuffed. While one woman interviewee is working to draw public and government attention to the plight of sick people in the prison system, the situation remains dire. No solution or set of solutions that would go some way to removing unwell prisoners from incarceration and giving them the treatments they need is suggested. American society appears helpless and at a loss for remedies.

Nowhere in the program is it ever suggested that the structure of American society and trends favouring privatisation, more social inequality, increasing social fragmentation and other pressures that encourage or aggravate mental illnesses are to blame. Political inertia exists because the prison system as it is benefits current US politics and the money links that bind politicians to corporations, some of which now own and operate private prisons. Unfortunately with the BBC becoming a propaganda front for US and UK and government and corporate interests, the program adopts a helpless approach to its subject matter: it can only shine a light into some dark areas of the US prison and justice system and wring its hands.

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