The Bureau of Prisons set higher standards for psychiatric care. But instead of helping more inmates, the agency dropped thousands from its caseload, data shows.
The voices in John Rudd’s head were getting louder. It was April 2017, and Rudd, an inmate at a federal prison near Hazelton, West Virginia, had stopped taking his psychiatric medication. He told staff members that he wanted to hang himself, so they moved him to a suicide-watch cell, according to records. When Rudd banged his head against the wall, trying to snap his neck, he was injected with haloperidol, an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia and prevent suicide.
Nevertheless, prison staff would conclude that Rudd wasn’t ill enough to require regular treatment. The next day, a psychologist wrote that he would be moved out of the suicide-watch cell and remain on “care level 1,” a label for those with no significant mental-health needs.
In 2014, amid mounting criticism and legal pressure, the Federal Bureau of Prisonsimposed a new policy promising better care and oversight for inmates with mental-health issues. But data obtained by The Marshall Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that instead of expanding treatment, the bureau has lowered the number of inmates designated for higher care levels by more than 35 percent. Increasingly, prison staff are determining that prisoners—some with long histories of psychiatric problems—don’t require any routine care at all.
Decline in mental health care in federal prisons
The number of federal prisoners receiving regular treatment for mental illness fell 35% after a policy change took effect in May 2014.
As of February, the Bureau of Prisons classified just 3 percent of inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment. By comparison, more than 30 percent of those incarcerated in California state prisons receive care for a “serious mental disorder.” In New York, 21 percent of inmates are on the mental-health caseload. Texas prisons provide treatment for roughly 20 percent.
A review of court documents and inmates’ medical records, along with interviews of former prison psychologists, revealed that although the Bureau of Prisons changed its rules, officials did not add the resources needed to implement them, creating an incentive for employees to downgrade inmates to lower care levels.
In an email, the bureau confirmed that mental-health staffing has not increased since the policy took effect. The bureau responded to questions from a public information office email account and declined to identify any spokesperson for this article.
“You doubled the workload and kept the resources the same. You don’t have to be Einstein to see how that’s going to work,” said a former Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending lawsuit regarding his time at the agency.