Stop Rampant Abuse of Mentally Ill Prisoners


Target: Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary, US Department of Health & Human Services

Goal: Stop excessive violence by corrections staff against mentally ill prisoners.

Mentally ill prisoners throughout the United States are suffering physical abuse at the hands of prison staff, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. The report details hundreds of complaints from the families and legal counsel of mentally ill prisoners claiming that excessive and unnecessary violence is used against them on an increasing basis. In some extreme cases, this violence has even resulted in death.

One prisoner reported that he was sprayed over 40 times with pepper spray after refusing to leave his cell, and that four pepper spray grenades were thrown into the cell in an attempt to smoke him out. Another said that after being found disoriented and incoherent seeking shelter in a doorway at night, he was taken to a cell and severely beaten, resulting in several broken bones and a collapsed lung. In Iowa, a 58-year-old bipolar woman was denied her medicine and tased several times when she became uncooperative with jail staff.

Another prisoner was put in a scalding shower after defecating in his cell and was left there until he died, while a schizophrenic man was handcuffed to a chair for hours during a medical emergency and left to die of an easily treatable blood condition. An elderly man suffering from depression and anxiety was sprayed with chemicals over a dozen times in one day causing a fatal heart attack, all because he was banging on his cell door asking to see a doctor.

This abuse not only stems from insensitivity and improperly trained staff, but from a lack of mental health care services in America’s prison and jail systems. This disgusting cruelty could easily be remedied with awareness, compassion, and restraint on the part of correctional staff. We, the undersigned, demand improved training for all prison and jail workers on how to properly deal with the mentally ill as well as an improvement in the availability of mental health care for detainees.


Dear Ms. Sylvia Mathews Burwell,

A recent report by a prominent human rights organization details hundreds of complaints of abuse, mistreatment, and denial of mental health care against prisoners suffering from mental illness. They have been beaten, tased, sprayed with chemicals, and even killed.

This systematic mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners stems from a lack of mental health professionals in prisons as well as insufficient training of prison guards. We, the undersigned, ask you to step up to protect the mentally ill by demanding improved health care and training in prisons and jails.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Zaid Hamid

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