Before group therapy begins for mentally ill maximum-security inmates at California prisons, five patients are led in handcuffs to individual metal cages about the size of a phone booth. Steel mesh and a plastic spit shield separate the patients from the therapist, who sits in front of what prison officials call “therapeutic modules”) wearing a shank-proof vest, reports the Los Angeles Times. Therapists try to build the foundation of any successful group: trust.
About a decade ago, a federal judge ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to leave mentally ill prisoners in cells without treatment. Since then, state prisons have spent more than a billion dollars delivering care to a growing population of inmates diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other problems. “Those cages are an abomination. They train people that they’re not human, that they’re animals,” said Terry Kupers, a Berkeley psychiatrist who served as an expert witness in the case that forced California prisons to provide psychiatric care. Jeffrey Metzner, a Colorado psychiatrist who has advised the special master overseeing mental healthcare in California prisons, said the enclosures offer better security and more freedom of movement than alternatives used in most states, which include handcuffing patients to their chairs or shackling an ankle to the floor. Once the inmates are inside the cage, handcuffs are removed. “You’re not fooling anybody with some ridiculous euphemism,” said Pablo Stewart, a San Francisco psychiatrist and critic of the enclosures. “This is one of the more horrendous examples of what goes on in the California Department of Corrections.”