Cruel and Unusual Punishment Among Mentally Ill Inmates

In a Jacksonville court on August 20, a federal circuit judge made history by banning the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents to subdue mentally ill prison inmates.

The 11th Circuit Court declared that when a prisoner’s mental disorder prevents him from conforming to the rules of conduct, the infliction of pain by guards constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Until that decision, gassing had been used routinely to restrain inmates, setting up a dangerous, self-defeating cycle: a deranged prisoner would become violent, the guards would spray his 7-by-9-foot cell to settle him down, and he would be sent to a treatment facility; but once stabilized, he would be returned to the prison and the violence would recur, starting the cycle again.

Michael McKinney, a schizophrenic Florida State Prison inmate whose case prompted the ruling, underwent this treatment 36 times between 2001 and 2007, each time suffering severe burns from the caustic spray used on him.

Randall Berg, president of the Florida Justice Institute and the attorney for McKinney and another inmate, said that the ruling establishes a “constitutional benchmark that in any future gassing of inmates, correction officers and Department of Corrections can’t raise qualified immunity,” a defense widely invoked in earlier cases. It also, says Berg, points up the need for better training of prison officers, who frequently mistake the symptoms of mental illness for ordinary bad behavior. “These guys would bang on their cell door, and they would be acting out the manifestation of their mental illness, and the guards would just let loose with the pepper spray.”

In the relatively small space of an FSP solitary-confinement cell, where violence-prone inmates are housed, chemical sprays become concentrated and cause intense pain to the prisoner’s skin, eyes, and airways. The result is cruelty, not correction.

In commenting on the court’s decision, Judge R. Lanier Anderson wrote that “It is only a prison official’s subjective deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm caused by such conditions that gives rise to an Eighth Amendment violation.”

Anyone related to or involved with a mentally ill prisoner at risk of mistreatment should contact a central Florida criminal defense attorney with experience in the field of personal injury or inmates’ rights.

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