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Caught in the Act

March 1, 2007
by DOUGLAS J. EDWARDS, Editor-in-Chief
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In my December editorial, I discussed the case of Timothy Joe Souders. The New York Times reported in November that Souders, who had a history of severe mental illness, died in a Michigan prison last August after enduring conditions a federal judge said constituted torture. While the Times story gave me a glimpse into Souders' tragic final days, a recent 60 Minutes episode provided actual footage of his needless suffering and death.

The chilling surveillance video of Souders' cell is difficult to watch. The 60 Minutes episode shows prison guards shackling Souders to a slab in solitary confinement apparently because he took an unauthorized shower, broke a stool, and flooded his cell with water from a sink. For up to 17 hours Souders laid baking in the summer heat. He eventually died of dehydration, which is no surprise given that his water was turned off and he refused water the guards provided. He wasn’t the first: Four years ago, an inmate with schizophrenia died of thirst in solitary confinement in a Michigan prison, and yet another inmate with mental illness starved to death (The photo of the emaciated inmate that 60 Minutes aired reminded me of images I’ve seen of Holocaust victims). In Souders' case, he didn’t receive mental healthcare because the prison psychiatrist was on leave and paperwork to transfer him to a hospital was never completed. Adding insult to injury, Souders' mother says she first found out about how her son died not from prison officials, but by reading a newspaper.

Although these are rare cases, we know that all too often people with mental illness are arrested for “petty” crimes (Souders' offense was shoplifting and pulling a pocket knife on store employees—no one was hurt) and then sent to prisons lacking the resources to handle them, leading to unnecessary suffering and inhumane conditions. Behavioral health advocates are trying to change this, and in this issue we feature efforts in America's largest court system, in Cook County, Illinois, to improve the lives of people with mental illness who end up in the judicial system (page 41). But without increased attention and funding from lawmakers, such efforts can only do so much.

Getting the word out about the plight of the mentally ill in prisons is of great importance, and I was surprised that major industry associations did not quickly issue releases commenting on the 60 Minutes story. It can be a valuable tool for educating the public. I urge you to watch the video (available for free at http://www.cbsnews.com/sections/i_video/main500251.shtml?id=2458916n) and share it with your staff, board members, stakeholders in your community, and consumers and their families. Souders died alone in his cell, but together we can make sure his memory lives on.



DOUGLAS J. EDWARDS, Editor-in-Chief
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