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News » Cover Story

Mental Lockdown

Mentally ill inmates struggle while the prison tries to prescribe their problems away

by and


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Ryan Allison’s - mugshots throughout - his time in prison
  • Ryan Allison’s mugshots throughout his time in prison

From his birth, Allison was unwanted. According to his records, public defender Chesnut recalls, he was "subjected to a very heavy drug-use environment" as an infant and passed from one person to another without the stability of any basic care. Allison came to Utah when he was 4 years old after he and his sister were adopted by a family that moved to Utah County from California.

According to a 14-page document compiled by the Disability Law Center from prison records and Allison's letters to them, from an early age he showed "conduct and impulsive control problems; as a result he was placed in several juvenile residential programs." When he turned 18, Allison wrote, he was placed in a Utah County foster home "for people with drug, gang and problems with violence."

Four months after his 18th birthday, in April 2010, he huffed some Axe body spray to get high and grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen. After a brief altercation over a social event his new foster family was attending, he pulled the knife and threatened his cousin with it, then ran off, subsequently surrendering to police.

That got him a misdemeanor charge of threatening to use a dangerous weapon in a fight. Once in the criminal justice system, he would never get out.

While being held in Utah County jail, he used an intercom in his cell to tell a guard that he would kill the judge on his case for talking about sending him to prison. The threat earned him a felony charge, and on Nov. 3, 2010, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill before Judge Claudia Laycock, who sentenced him to five years in prison. But she found that his mental illness "poses an immediate physical danger to himself or to others [...] if placed in a correctional or probation setting," so she sent him to the state hospital in Provo for treatment.

Things did not go well. In a 2012 letter to City Weekly, he wrote that he attacked staff and patients, broke chairs, closets and shelves and fire sprinklers. The act that led to him being sent back to Utah County jail in March 2011 was trying to break the neck of a patient at the hospital who had trash-talked him.

Laycock ruled that the Department of Corrections was "the correct placement for Mr. Allison," so she reinstated the five-year prison sentence. "This is a young man who needs more help than you and I can provide for him," she wrote to the parole board. "Unfortunately, the prison is the last resort for a defendant with his violent and disturbed background. He will need highly intensive supervision when placed on parole."

Allison never made it to parole. The third day of his prison sentence, Allison attempted suicide by taking 40 pills from a prescribed blister pack. The prison ruled he was guilty of abusing and misusing medications and gave him 10 days in solitary confinement in Uinta 1.

In his first year in the prison, 13 of the 15 incidents he was punished for with punitive isolation "were likely related to Ryan's mental illness," the DLC wrote.

Allison wrote to City Weekly of his experience struggling for recovery in Uinta 1, where he endured lockdown nearly 24/7 in a single cell.

He was allowed out for a 15-minute shower every other day and one hour in a caged outdoor space—"a rec yard." Transporting him to this space required him to be handcuffed, put on a leash, and wear a spithood. He got one hot meal a day, the other two meals being baloney sandwiches, with carrots and an orange.

After continued threats of suicide, Allison hanged himself in August 2011 and was found by officers "gasping for air." He told a mental-health official he had tried to kill himself, the DLC report notes, because the hallucinated voices "were constantly telling him that no one loves him, that he is a fat, disgusting and worthless human being who needs to kill himself and who should do so as soon as possible,"

The more time he spent in solitary, the more his mental-health issues worsened—which, in turn, led to more suicide attempts and self-harming so he could go to the infirmary.

Allison was more than aware of his own self-destructive impulses. In a Nov. 11, 2012, letter to the DLC, Allison explained that an inmate's slide into suicidal thoughts and actions stem from struggling with the prison environment, regret over how they came to be incarcerated and shame for making their family look bad.

"These 3 reasons are [why] I attempted suicide," he wrote. "When we attempt suicide here at the prison we are punished. And as you can see we can end up receiving Punitive isolation time."

Allison was on multiple medications. But, according to a February 2012 note by a clinical services worker in Allison's file, his medication "mostly cause sedation, but do little to help his mood."

Sam Vincent, who treats the mentally ill homeless at Fourth Street Clinic, worked at the prison between 2008 and 2009. Mental-health clinicians who work at the prison are "heroic," he says, doing the best they can with the resources they have. In front of someone clawing at their face with their fingernails, he says, a chemical restraint "seems the humane thing to do."

Clinicians also have what Vincent calls "a tightrope walk" to get buy-in from officers to treat mentally ill inmates' behavior as symptoms rather than misbehaving.

He says the increasing number of prescription medications at the prison might reflect national trends in the use of psychiatric medications over the last decade. "Meds are used to replace therapy in the private sector as well as in corrections," he says. "Our culture is encouraging people to look for a pharmacological fix for emotional problems."

CLOSING THE GAP It's not just criminal-justice reforms that advocates are watching closely this legislative session. The fate of those whose mental illnesses and substance-abuse problems put them on a trajectory to prison is also wrapped up in the final approval of Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah Plan, a custom approach to expanding Medicaid in the state. Herbert has been in long negotiations with the Obama administration to allow Utah to charge elevated premiums, require co-payments for services and provide certain insurance plans through the private sector in order to expand Medicaid to the nearly 100,000 Utahns who currently aren't eligible for the assistance.

Pat Fleming, the director of Substance Abuse Services for Salt Lake County Behavioral Health, sees access to that money—$258 million—as crucial to building up community treatment programs in the counties that can intervene before individuals go to prison and, ideally, when they get out.

"I've got a four-month waitlist to get someone into a residential bed in Salt Lake County," Fleming says. "I'm like the king of rationing behavioral health care—it's a terrible spot to be in."

With Medicaid expansion, Fleming says, programs in Salt Lake County could, for example, afford to separate low and high-level offenders in community-treatment programs, a targeted approach that's been shown to improve outcomes.

Medicaid expansion would also provide an incredible opportunity to individuals who regularly cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. At a recent criminal justice reform symposium, Jeannie Edens of the Salt Lake County Department of Behavioral Health Services shared statistics showing that, prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Utah was in line with the rest of the nation, in that 90 percent of individuals entering county jails are uninsured.

Providing coverage to this population would also be a major relief for taxpayers, Edens noted, as the cost of two years of outpatient treatment is equivalent to 90 days incarceration or 19 days of a hospital stay. Beyond that, Medicaid expansion could finally provide resources for ex-convicts in the community to make them "into taxpayers, not tax users."

At least three times during his first three years in prison, Allison did achieve a measure of stability and pursued both vocational training and finishing his high school credits.

Graduating from high school was something that made him immensely proud, but Allison remained a fragile case. In 2012 alone, he had approximately 151 mental-health visits, though the majority of them, according to prison records, were what the DLC describes as "Direct Observation, or at his cell door within earshot of other inmates or guards," with the health visitor speaking through a slot.

In early 2013, Allison's behavior in Uinta 1 deteriorated yet again. "He mentioned that he cannot return to U1 as life there will be unbearable," a mental-health official wrote in his file. "I took the time to explain (as has repeatedly been done) that if he behaved, he could leave there permanently."

Despite such admonitions, Allison pulled most of his hair out of his head, some strand by strand. He beat his face against the cell window when talking to a health visitor. "He reports that he will 'do anything,' " a report by a clinical-services worker states, to get out of Uinta 1, the maximum-security wing, and over to Olympus, the mental-health unit of the prison. Prison staff viewed such behavior dubiously. "I suspect this activity is borderline and manipulation." In March and April 2013, as his stress over an upcoming parole-board hearing grew, he inflicted horrific injuries upon himself. "Last month I did the following," he wrote to the DLC. "I ripped my own Anus open with my own hand's, I hung myself, I tried to drown myself in the toilet, I jumped off the sink backward's headfirst, I broke 3 finger's on my left hand with my own Right hand," he tried to hit several infirmary officers, and as he was put on a gurney after he hung himself, "I was trying to bite a chunk out of my own hand."

Allison went before the parole-board chairman, Clark Harms, in April 2013. He told Harms how he wanted to have a life, any life, rather than where he was then. Harms told him he couldn't be paroled until he was stable.

The cocktail of meds he was on did not stop Allison from hanging himself multiple times, he told Harms. "I hear voices and they tell me to do bad things," he said.

As soon as Allison left Harms, despite having agreed to behave better, he hanged himself. A few weeks later, he received Harms' recommendation that if he had no write-ups in six months, he might be eligible for parole. But since he had already tried to kill himself, that meant he had a write-up on his record and at that point, he later told a hearing officer, "I gave up."

Six months after seeing Clark Harms, Allison went before mental-health hearing officer Jan Nicol. She told him that both the institution and the executive director of the prison had recommended he not be released.

Allison wasn't surprised. He told Nicol that, "When I get angry, I get to the point where I don't care about anything and I go off." She explained to him that while his violence might be sparked by officers trash-talking him, "really all you're doing is punishing yourself."

She noted that Allison probably couldn't see her because he was not allowed glasses after breaking up his last pair and, at the suggestion of another inmate, swallowing the pieces in an attempt to perforate his bowels.

His sentence would end in May 2015, she told him. "I would really like you to have help," she said.

But that help never came. Allison attempted to castrate himself, spurred on by child-abuse issues from when he was an infant, according to what he wrote to a prisoner-rights advocate. That had earned him lockdown in a mental-health strip cell in the Olympus unit, he wrote.

In August 2014, Allison went to court on charges relating to assaulting two corrections officers by spitting at them. Four to six prison officers in full riot gear accompanied him, public defender Chesnut says.

He was found guilty but mentally ill and given a five-year prison sentence to run concurrently with the sentence he was close to finishing.

By then, Allison's aspirations had changed from being a chef. He told Chesnut he would "never be able to openly live in public because he was too dangerous to himself and other people." She says he hoped one day to be well enough to live in a group home. "I think he would have done anything to get rid of his insanity."

One month later, on Sept. 12, 2014, Ryan Allison succeeded in taking his own life in a suicide-watch cell in Olympus, the mental-health unit. Staff gave him CPR to no avail. He was 22.

It's unlikely Allison was aware of the political maelstrom swirling around the prison with calls for reform and funding for community services. Inside the prison, Allison was alone in his cell with the voices in his head.

Nathan Turner contributed to this story.