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Unlocking the Box

As Utah State Prison moves beyond using solitary confinement as punishment, mentally ill inmates struggle with its legacy.

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When 25-year-old Jeremy Haas paroled out of the Utah State Prison in May 2015, he went to live with his mother. She took him to the still-blue waters of the Spanish Fork reservoir, where, for the first time in his life, he walked barefoot in sand.

He had done eight years of a 1-to-15-year sentence for an attempted carjacking with a loaded gun. Doing time is never easy, nor is it meant to be, but Haas' prison stint was more difficult than most. He has a limited IQ, can barely write, struggles to read and has a need to please whomever he is with, according to documents prepared by Utah's Disability Law Center (DLC), which represented him for several years.

Haas fell out of a third-story window when he was 5, and as a teen went from treatment facilities to juvenile delinquency, drug use and a brief gang affiliation. Multiple doctors have diagnosed him with a plethora of mental illnesses, ranging from moderate to mild mental retardation to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Despite such diagnoses, and having been identified by the prison as a high suicide risk, he nevertheless spent more than half of his first five years in prison in solitary confinement in part of the maximum-security wing known as Uinta 1 for misconduct issues—many of them related to his mental illness.

Barely turned 18, Haas went to prison in November 2007 as, he told a Board of Pardons hearing officer, "a child in the mind, and then I had to grow up in prison." Inmates "spun him up"—which is prison speak for convincing him to do what he himself later termed "stupid things"—for their amusement. He broke sprinkler heads and flicked feces mixed with urine at correctional officers, resulting in further criminal convictions, thousands of dollars in unpaid fines that steadily accrue interest, and time in "the box" or "the hole," as solitary has been called.

From January 2008 to September 2012, he spent 1,021 days out of a total 1,731 days in punitive isolation. That means more than half of his first five years in prison were spent 23-hours-a-day in a box a little larger than a parking space with a concrete bunk, a sink and a toilet.

The prison had little tolerance for Haas' inability to face down torment and abuse. After he was beaten unconscious by a "cellie," a prison official deemed his failure to avoid such a situation his own fault. "Unfortunately, your complaints of being beaten by your cell mate and your attempted suicide by taking pills has shown you cannot be managed outside of Uinta 1 and the severe management sections," the grievance officer wrote in March 2014. That was in response to his complaint that it was unfair he was punished with solitary for being the victim of an assault. The thin, self-described transgender youth needed to "stop trying to hurt yourself or to allow others to hurt you."

In 2015, the United Nations promoted the "Nelson Mandela Rules," which deemed locking up inmates for 22 hours a day or more, for more than a two-week period, "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Long a punitive tool of control for prison authorities, solitary confinement is recognized as worsening the condition of those already struggling with mental health issues.

In late 2011, a City Weekly reporter began following a number of inmates with severe and persistent mental illnesses (SPMIs) at the Utah State Prison. Three of the inmates were clients of the Utah Disability Law Center. All four spent significant time in solitary because of misbehavior that, the DLC found from analyzing three of the inmates' records, stemmed in great part from their mental illnesses.

Almost six years on, two of the four are dead. Ryan Allison committed suicide at age 22 in the prison's mental health wing, and 25-year-old Christopher Lee Lucas died after correctional officers used tear gas to stop a fight. Haas and 33-year-old Cameron Payne, who suffered a devastating traumatic brain injury when he hit a wall on a motorbike, remain in prison and the prospects for their successful return to the outside world look grim.

"They're doing more time and harder time because of their disability," DLC Legal Director Aaron Kinikini says, adding that he's haunted by the tragic fates of the three inmates he came to know through the DLC's work. There's little research into the long-term impact of solitary confinement, but Kinikini has no doubt that its toxic legacy made their lives infinitely more difficult. "Most people successfully negotiate being in prison. These guys, not a chance."

Privacy regulations restrict the prison from responding to specific questions about the four inmates. "The seriously and persistently mentally ill/Severe TBI inmate population is [a] small and diverse portion of the overall prison population and presents a unique set of challenges," spokesperson Maria Peterson writes in an email. "These inmates are closely monitored and carefully managed to balance both the person's need for treatment and the safety of the officers, inmates and therapists with whom they interact."

Under Utah Department of Corrections' Executive Director Rollin Cook, the prison has embraced both greater transparency and a progressive, rehabilitation-weighted focus on incarceration. That shift was apparent 18 months ago when the prison sought to reduce its reliance on the nationwide practice of "administrative segregation," as solitary confinement is formally known, as punishment. Instead it put in place a three-tiered system designed to send inmates back to general population within 12 months.

Restricted housing, as the prison now calls solitary, is not about punishment, Peterson writes. "It is used to safely manage unpredictable behavior," and inmates "who are evaluated as mentally ill are not placed in restricted housing." Haas and Payne, while in the highest security wing of the prison, the Uintas, are both in what the prison calls structured housing, which allows for greater time out of their cells, but it still means that they are under some form of lock-down.

Even with all these changes, some mentally ill parolees exit the prison only to find a threadbare support system, particularly concerning when, like Haas, they bear the damage of long-term 23-hour-a-day lockdown. "The hopelessness of his prospects for successful parole have to be connected in part to what he's experienced in prison," Kinikini says.

In total, Haas was paroled three times, leaving the brutal isolation of his diminutive cell (6 feet by 14 feet by 8 feet) for the chaotic noise of the outside world and the stringent demands of parole supervision—find a place to live, get a job, stay sober and return to the halfway house before curfew. Each time he returned to the prison on minor violations.

"It's crazy," Haas says, when asked what it was like to be outside. He is sitting behind bars in an orange jumpsuit, the smell of stale sweat initially coming through the bars in an interview room in Uinta 1. "Even speaking about being out is hard." Asked what it was like to be free, he looks down unblinking at the scratched metal surface before him for long seconds. "I don't know where to begin or end," he says.

BARS BEHIND BARS

More than 20 percent of the prison's inmate population have mental health needs, amounting to approximately 1,600 individuals with conditions that range from anxiety and depression to serious and severe mental illnesses. Out of a $34 million annual health budget, the prison's Clinical Services Director Tony J. Washington says $5 million goes to mental health, which includes two full-time psychiatrists.

"The whole goal is to reintegrate them into normal living situations as soon as possible," Deputy Clinical Services Director Blitch Schuman says. With the Justice Reform Initiative, he says the prison has taken "a softer approach for the mentally ill."

While he stresses that some of the inmates are very difficult cases, mental health services at the prison have gone through a tune-up, in terms of the interventions taken, staff responsibilities, observation assessments and generally "providing better care," Schuman says.

Until several years ago, Utah had one of the highest percentages of its inmate population kept in solitary in the nation. It ranked sixth in a 2015 Yale Law School team national survey of "administrative segregation," with 11.9 percent of its then 7,000-strong population in solitary. To its credit, it was also one of only four jurisdictions that believed that "making changes to administrative segregation is the 'right thing to do.'"

Those changes found traction over the past 18 months, Prison Operations Director Jerry Pope says, sitting in the staff room of Uinta 1 as 90-plus matchbox-sized photographs of men in rows of eight on a poster look down on him. Whereas before inmates were put into solitary for a variety of reasons—including, he says, "sometimes just because we're angry at them"—what's now called the "restricted housing population" has been cut to 4 percent through introducing a more humane, nuanced regime. Weekly meetings of a multidisciplinary team review individual cases and ask, Pope says, "Do they need to stay here?"

At the same time, housing units in the prison are getting more selective about who they send to restricted housing, Pope says. "It's almost going too far the other way." There's no magic to the new approach, he says. It's simply about transitioning inmates out of restricted housing in part by offering them incentives, including more time out of their cells and educational programs.

To get inmates out of their cells, the prison is investing in what Pope calls "enclosures"—essentially a large cage on the ground floor of each of the eight Uinta 1 pods. So far, two have been installed. A City Weekly reporter was given a limited tour of Uinta 1 and the Olympus mental health unit.

The enclosure was fitted with exercise bars and a row of kettle bells, albeit without instructions on how to use the latter. A young man in an orange jumpsuit sat slumped on a stool, watching a TV through the bars. All the cell doors bar one were shut, faces occasionally appearing through the slot windows. One door had three pieces of paper stuck to it, warning that the inmate inside was a "spitter," "slimer" (flicking bodily waste at officers) and not to be given a pen, as he would swallow it.

In an adjacent room was another weapon in the prison's arsenal to wean itself away from punitive isolation, namely five heavy metal chairs with a set of handcuffs and a lengthy chain allowing inmates to write with one hand. The "security desks" cost $2,500 each and it's here that five inmates at a time can attend programs for anger management and impulse control, assuming their privilege level (dictated by their behavior) allows.

The mental health unit is a few-minute drive away from the main prison. Pope has NPR on the radio, something the farmer's son from southern California self-consciously jokes about as he drives.

An inmate sits in a security desk, an officer sitting either side of him, a TV on in front of him, although his eyes are closed, his head half-bowed. Olympus was on lockdown because an inmate had stabbed himself and staffers were cleaning up the blood. "They make stuff out of everything," a sergeant says, in reference to the unidentified implement the inmate used to cut himself.

MURDEROUS VOICES

While the prison moves away from punitive isolation, its historic impact on inmates proves less amenable to change. In some cases, that's because the consequences of placing mentally ill criminal offenders in a system that punished misbehavior with solitary proved fatal. The stories of Ryan Allison, whose deeply troubled, short life and suicide were profiled in a December 2014 City Weekly cover story called "Mental Lockdown," and that of schizophrenic Christopher Lucas, attest to that.

Allison went to prison after the judge admitted in court she had nowhere else to send him, given his level of violence. In his first three years in prison, the articulate and self-aware Allison spent over half of it in punitive isolation for behavior issues, the majority of which were related to his mental illness the DLC found from his medical records. Allison killed himself in the mental health unit by diving off his sink head-first into the floor. While he had inflicted horrific injuries on himself and attempted suicide numerous times, he also routinely threatened officers. In a report into Allison's death, one officer told investigators, "Allison always threatens to kill them and the correction officers hate him." Spokesperson Peterson says correctional officers "experience high rates of PTSD and depression" due to their work.

Lucas suffered physical abuse as a child in California, his father knocking him out with a beer bottle when he was 9 or 10 years old, according to a DLC work-up from his medical records. He went to special education classes and was often suspended from school.

When Lucas went to prison for forcible sex abuse, he told a mental health evaluator he would be permanently incarcerated because of his mind and "how I'm thinkin' isn't good." He said his mind would take over his body and tell him to punch or kill someone. "He felt like an outsider and is unable to love people," a DLC attorney wrote in a report on Lucas.

During his four years in prison, Lucas was sentenced to 20 periods of punitive isolation, most of which were either 20 or 30 days in length. His offenses ranged from failure to comply with an order to threatening and fighting staff. In one incident shortly before he died, he pleaded not guilty to threatening an officer because, he said, "I'm crazy." As staff forced him to the floor, he screamed, "It's the voices in my head making me do this."

In late August 2014, Lucas went before a parole-hearing officer. The officer told him his recent 10 disciplinary write-ups did not bode well. "The only way the board will take seriously the possibility of parole is if you manage yourself seriously," the officer said.

Two weeks later, Lucas was dead. A neighboring inmate angry about his early morning screaming had gone into Lucas' cell and started hitting him. Officers shut the cell door and bombarded his assailant with pepper spray. Lucas repeatedly complained of being unable to breathe, "and exhibited signs of distress"—according to the Salt Lake County district attorney's report into his "in-custody death"—before losing consciousness and dying at Lone Peak hospital.

The medical examiner found that there were "three major factors at play as possible causes" of Lucas' death minutes after he was pulled out of the cell: "his recent altercation with another inmate, his exposure to pepper agents and his underlying mental illness."

Records show that until the fatal fight, "Lucas did so much better in general population than when he was in Unita 1," Kinikini says. "It was great when he was integrated into the prison population, and then this happens. It's a no-win situation for the prison."

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MOOD SWINGS

Alison Payne has long feared that her son Cameron's fate would mirror Lucas', dying in prison at the hands of correctional officers, an inmate or his own. She accepts he had to do time—"He had to have his punishment. You can't go around hurting people with knives, no matter what they are doing to you," she says.

Payne is doing 1-to-15 for an August 2010 aggravated assault conviction. He has a traumatic brain injury, something prison health services chief Washington says the prison screens for, although Kinikini doubts that. Kinikini says estimates put TBIs among prison inmates as high as 60 percent to 70 percent. "It's not like mental illness," Kinikini says, where you can give a pill. "It's behavior. Someone with a moderate TBI can go from zero to belligerent in no seconds, which is exactly the wrong attitude to have in a prison system."

That rapidfire transition is apparent in a prison interview with Payne in Uinta 1. He says the prison views him as a "violent inmate," and he has spent the vast majority of his time being shuffled from one cell to another in Uinta 1. "I'm never allowed to have a cellie, or go to population," he says. He sits straight-backed as he talks through the bars, laughing at times, only for his conversation to drop like a hurtling elevator into a profanity-strewn verbal depiction of sexual assault of someone that has angered him that sucks the air out of the room.

A survivor of a motorcycle crash that left him with a devastating brain injury, Cameron Payne has spent six-and-a-half years in prison for assault.
  • A survivor of a motorcycle crash that left him with a devastating brain injury, Cameron Payne has spent six-and-a-half years in prison for assault.

According to the addresses on the hundreds of letters he sent his mother over the past six years, her son moved cells approximately 50 times. Prison operations director Pope says, "Cameron is a unique person," and argues that such cell changes can be beneficial, akin to "a change of scenery." He also notes that "a lot of it is based on behavior." Payne's mother disagrees, saying that a cell is like a security blanket for him and being moved "discombobulates him."

Inmates gang up on Payne and try to verbally provoke him from their separate cells. He says his current neighbors, "run their mouth about me." Every disciplinary write-up he's ever received, he says, is "a lie. I said a lot of stupid things, but I never started it."

Payne says her son's complaints about officers' egging him into violent outbursts "are legit, straight down the line. Every action he's ever done is his TBI (traumatic brain injury). And then he's punished for it."

Payne and his mother aren't the only ones alleging officers and inmates routinely goad him into "going off." An inmate wrote to City Weekly in 2015 of his concerns over conditions in Uinta 1, requesting anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Payne "was placed in my section a week ago by himself—no bedding, mattress. Nothing. Officers provoked him all night until he flipped out—this was done so they could place him back in Uinta 1."

Spokesperson Peterson says there's no complaints against officers "of that nature," on Payne's file, but there was a misconduct investigation in 2014. That looked into Payne's allegation that officers had verbally threatened him and his family, "but there was not enough credible evidence to substantiate the allegations."

BABY, COME HOME

After six-and-a-half years, what keeps Payne in prison is not the crime he committed but his disability. At his last parole hearing, the officer told him the only way he would ever be paroled is "to mind your P's and Q's." The board would never let him go to live with his parents, the officer said. But to get out, first he had stop getting into fights and receiving disciplinary write-ups. Once he stabilized himself, "he can be released to a placement with the Department of Services for People with Disabilities," the Board of Pardons' Administrative Director Greg Johnson writes in an email.

His mother thinks his cognitive abilities have improved in solitary from all his reading, including books by Western author Louis L'Amour. "My mom says I'm doing better," Payne says.

Alison Payne had given up hope of her son ever getting out of prison. Then she received a call in late 2016 from high-profile attorney Rocky Anderson, who learned of Payne's story from an attorney friend who represented him on criminal charges. Anderson's associate, Amin Alehashem, is in the preliminary stages of investigating Payne's case. What he finds troubling, he says, is that prisons and jails often have a fundamental misunderstanding of how severe mental disability is the root cause of behavior.

"That lack of knowledge creates this system where folks like Cameron are perpetually punished for behavior related to their disability," Alehashem says. He says that while the prison system has "become the default form of dealing with severe mental illness, the overwhelming evidence is that it's not working."

Alehashem says he's looking at whether punishments Payne receives are because of his disabilities, "and then asking the question, 'Is he being punished more severely than a non-disabled inmate under the same circumstances?'"

Alison Payne says she informed the prison of a Cedar City facility that takes disability payments to care for those with TBIs. She asked a reporter to pass on the message to her son to behave for his upcoming parole hearing in April. That hearing, however, was canceled. Payne was informed in late February that he would stay at the prison until October 2024, a year shy of his full 15-year sentence. Payne delivers the news without emotion.

The Board of Pardons' Johnson writes in an email response to questions that, while the board did not have another hearing scheduled for Payne, it "is willing to reconsider the release decision at any time if an appropriate placement can be arranged in the community."

Payne says he did his mandatory one-year out of the 15, and six more years on top of that. He wishes, he says, if only for his mother's sake, the prison would "let her baby boy go home."

Alison Payne with some of the several hundreds of letters her son sent her from prison.
  • Alison Payne with some of the several hundreds of letters her son sent her from prison.

HALFWAY HOME

In 2020, the new state prison will open northwest of Salt Lake City, with 4,000 inmates, down from the current population of almost 6,000. Prison spokesperson Peterson says the new prison design will emphasize easier access for inmates to services. "It will be revolutionary, really," clinical services Deputy Director Schuman says.

"The whole facility is being built around this idea that isolation is contraindicated," Washington says. "There's a heavy focus on normalization, on lighting and natural light." One design being looked at for the mentally ill housing is that it will be V-shaped, "with a wall of panels so everybody in their cell can see the world out there," he adds.

As well as being able to see more of the outside world, inmates with mental health issues may also have more access to courtyards and walking tracks so they can walk with therapists.

There still remains what Pope calls "a fundamental flaw in the system," namely the lack of alternatives for mentally ill offenders who have paroled, particularly those with violent tendencies. "What can we do in the community on an inpatient or outpatient basis without having to send them back, because prison is not geared to address these kinds of things?" he asks. "We have done it by default, but really is that the ideal situation?"

Sixteen beds are available for mentally ill parolees at the Bonneville Community Correction Center on Salt Lake City's west side. The halfway house is in the middle of a warehouse business district and the majority of its 74 beds are for sex offenders.

Adult Probation and Parole Assistant Regional Administrator Dan Chesnut runs Bonneville and says that generally not all the 16 beds earmarked for mentally ill parolees are occupied at any one time. He notes that many parolees with mental illness function very well in the community, particularly if they are well supported by their family. "They face some of the issues that all parolees face," he says, such as getting work, as well as others unique to them, like being medication-compliant. "A larger percentage succeeds than don't," he says.

Bonneville's mentally ill parolee program overlaps, to some degree, with the Mental Health Review Team (MHRT), which "coordinates information exchange and discusses solutions for individuals with mental health issues," Johnson writes in an email. MHRT was in response, Dr. Allan Rice says, to the recidivism rate of mentally ill offenders being six times that of people who are not mentally ill. Rice is the clinical director for the Salt Lake County Mental Health Court. He expresses frustration that the weekly meeting of Adult Probation and Parole agents, treatment providers and himself have never grown beyond the size of the pilot program of 12 parolees referred by Corrections. "I'm amazed it hasn't been used more," he says.

"HOW THE HELL DO I DO THIS?"

Look at Haas' photograph as a round-faced late teenager going into prison, compared to the heavily tattooed, haunted youth he is now, and Kinikini says, "He hasn't hurt anybody. The system has hurt him more than possibly anybody else."

Once a fresh-faced Boy Scout, Jeremy Haas attempted a robbery when he was 17, and consequently had to grow up in prison.
  • Once a fresh-faced Boy Scout, Jeremy Haas attempted a robbery when he was 17, and consequently had to grow up in prison.


When Haas paroled, Kinikini says, he went "from this strange netherworld and it's like jumping off a cliff." Haas told a parole hearing officer, when he left prison, he stood alone in the outside world and thought, "Wow, how the hell do I do this?"

He paroled three times. The first time in May 2015 lasted a month and a half. He lived with his mother but says they had a falling out. He went to the halfway house Fortitude Treatment Center, only to encounter officers who had known him at the prison. He took off for the amusement park Lagoon, a relative bringing him back. The second time he paroled—in August 2015, this time to live with an aunt—things again didn't go well, and he took off once more. When AP&P agents picked him up from jail, he asked them to "pull over and put a bullet in my head."

Adult Probation and Parole Agent Katie Bennett told a board hearing that Haas' emotional and mental disability made parole hard for him. Over-burdened parole officers with 60-strong caseloads didn't have the time to hand-hold him through the complexities and demands of parole. The agency wanted him evaluated to see if he qualified for "the mental health halfway house to get stabilization and really get back on his feet," she said.

Since treatment plans are federally protected, the board can't comment on why Haas didn't go to Bonneville's mentally ill offender program.

A few days into his third parole, on Jan. 26, 2016, rather than absconding once more, Haas returned to Fortitude drunk and high on meth. "I went there, I told them, 'I need help, I want to go to rehab,'" he says. Instead, Fortitude sent him back to prison.

He couldn't do parole, he told a hearing officer, it was too hard and there were too many conditions. "AP&P wants me to go to mental health classes and have a job. I can't do both." His next parole hearing is in January.

Kinikini visited Haas in Uinta 1 in January 2017. Haas began lucidly but became agitated and angry over his parole history. He'd burned his bridges as far as relatives who would take him into their homes. When Kinikini asked him where he could stay, other than a halfway house, he had no idea. "I don't know, I can't go anywhere." And a halfway house, Kinikini fears, is little more than a return ticket to prison. "My sense of Haas is if you throw him into a room of typical parolees with substance abuse problems, there's zero chance he's not going to tag along somewhere and get high," he says.

On the outside, Kinikini says, Haas needs "wrap-around services, substance abuse, mental health. Without that, I don't think he can make it."

Kinikini's visit ended with Haas babbling in his own version of German. He repeated this behavior with a City Weekly reporter who interviewed him a week later. After 15 minutes of questions, Haas accused the reporter of knowing the homespun, German derivative language and refusing to acknowledge it.

In English, he said he was "unjustly" being held in the prison, that "these fucking lames can send me back" to what he now claimed was his ancestral home, Germany. "I'm not an American, I'm an idiot savant," he said. He then threw up his arms and pronounced his fate in two words: "I'm done."


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