Human Rights Watch slams U.S. for treatment of people with mental disabilities in jails and prisons

A pair of hands gripping prison cell bars.
US prisoners face abuse

Human Rights Watch released a massive new report May 12, documenting numerous examples of “unnecessary, excessive and even malicious” force against people with mental disabilities in jails and prisons through the United States.

“Custody staff are not trained in how to work with prisoners with mental disabilities, how to defuse volatile situations, or how to talk prisoners into complying with orders,”said Jamie Fellner, US program senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, in a news release. “All too often, force is what staff members know and what they use. In badly run facilities officers control inmates, including those with mental illness, through punitive violence.”

A recent study found that nearly 360,000 inmates with severe mental disabilities reside in jails nationwide.

Compared to other inmates, prisoners with mental disabilities are far more likely to be subjected to force due to numerous factors, including “deficient mental health treatment, inadequate policies, insufficient training and supervision, lack of accountability, and poor leadership.”

The report is believed to be the first nationwide survey of the use of force against inmates with mental disabilities in the nation’s 5,100 jails and prisons.

“Prisons can be dangerous places, and staff are authorized to use force to protect safety and security,” the report states. “But under the US Constitution and international human rights law, force against any prisoner (with mental disabilities or not) may be used only when – and to the extent – necessary as a last resort, and never as punishment.”

Read the full report, titled “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in Jails and Prisons,” on the Human Rights Watch website.

Human Rights Watch also produced a video to accompany the report. Please note that the video contains violent and disturbing images.