Prison experts call St. Tammany Jail cages ‘inhumane’
by Richard A. Webster, Staff Writer
New Orleans City Business
Published: July 15th, 2010
Stunning and inhumane.
It’s how some of the country’s leading prison supply manufacturers describe St. Tammany Parish Jail’s use of small booking cages to house the mentally ill and suicidal.
“Did I hear that right?” Michelle Markum asked when told about the 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 8 feet tall cages the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana says are used to hold mentally ill and suicidal inmates for weeks, sometimes months.
“We deal with hundreds of prisons throughout the nation, and I’ve never heard of something like that,” said Markum, operations manager of ICS Jail Supplies in Waco, Texas. “I’m stunned.”
Mark Gaines, production manager for detention supplier Bob Barker based in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., one of the largest prison supply companies in the country, was also shocked.
“This is against ACA (American Correctional Association) standards,” Gaines said. “It’s inhumane.”
The ACA is a 140-year-old group that has established internationally followed standards for prisons. Its guidelines call for a one-person cell that’s used to house an inmate for more than 10 hours to have 70 square feet of floor space even if the inmate is on suicide watch.
The so-called squirrel cages at St. Tammany Parish Jail, which is not an accredited member of the ACA, cover 9 square feet.
None of the prison supply companies contacted sell cages similar to those used by St. Tammany or knew of other companies that sell them.
“If this was widely used, I would have heard about it or seen it somewhere,” Gaines said.
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and his medical director, Dr. Demaree Inglese, have come under fire for using the cages to house suicidal inmates. The ACLU of Louisiana claims guards deny caged inmates the use of bathrooms, forcing them to urinate and defecate in cups or on themselves.
Strain and Inglese say the state’s failure to provide medical beds for inmates declared mentally incompetent has forced under-funded and ill-equipped parish jails such as St. Tammany’s to take on their care until a hospital bed is available.
They said they are making the best out of a bad situation.
“Safety has to come before comfort,” Inglese said. “It’s impractical to think we can deliver the same care as a hospital.”
That is a cop-out, said Lindsay Hayes, the country’s leading expert on suicide prevention in prisons and jails and a consultant with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Instead of preventing suicide, the use of the cages increases the risk, Hayes said. Inmates will be less likely to tell a doctor or guard they are suicidal knowing they will be locked up in a squirrel cage. And once inside, inmates will say anything to get out, even if they are still contemplating suicide, just to end the humiliation, he said.
"(Strain and Inglese) should take a trip around the country to any one of the other 3,500 county facilities and realize they are alone in the way they treat their mentally ill suicidal inmates,” Hayes said.
Every local jail has a backlog of mentally ill defendants who are waiting for treatment in the state hospital system, Hayes said, but St. Tammany Parish Jail is the only one that chooses to handle the backlog by putting people in squirrel cages.
“I’m hired to go into jails and assess their suicide prevention practices, and I’ve never gone into a jail and where I had to tell someone to stop locking people in cages. There’s no precedent for what they’re doing.”
Hayes takes particular aim at Inglese.
“What’s most disappointing is that the medical director seems to be very much involved in this,” he said.
Medical directors who disagree with prison policy either resign or refuse to comment, Hayes said. Instead, Inglese has defended the use of the cages.
“When a medical director makes very little comment about a policy, you can tell they don’t care for it, are embarrassed professionally by it and wouldn’t want their colleagues around the country to know that they work in such a system. But here you have a medical director on the record saying it’s the state’s responsibility and that’s just ridiculous.”
Cages similar to those at St. Tammany Jail are used in limited instances at maximum security prisons, Hayes said. Violent, mentally ill patients are sometimes placed in cages during court-mandated group therapy sessions, but only for an hour.
The abuse extends beyond the cages, according to affidavits the ACLU obtained from former St. Tammany prisoners.
They claim prison guards stripped inmates before they were put into the cages and forced them to wear bright orange Daisy Duke shorts that have “Hot Stuff” emblazoned on the front and back.
“Humiliating the mentally ill, the most vulnerable, is a sport that breaks the monotony and exemplifies unprofessionalism,” Hayes said. “So when you find a case like this, you’ll also find there are many other problems with this jail, not just how they treat their mentally ill.”
St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis hired a consulting firm to evaluate the jail after two high-profile escape incidents. In February, a design flaw at the prison allowed accused murderer Carlos Rodriguez to flee the facility. And in June 2009, four inmates, all facing murder or attempted murder charges, escaped from the jail. All were eventually apprehended.
The consultant’s report, released in June, recommends $2 million in improvements at the Covington jail. Davis has suggested paying for part of the upgrades by charging medical fees to inmates.