News lately has been buzzing about the story of Robert Knott. Recently, the U.S. Justice Department has agreed to pay $175,000 to Knott’s family following his suicide in a Colorado supermax prison. Allegedly, there were clear signs that Knott’s psychological health was deteriorating in the weeks prior to his suicide, but prison staff did nothing in response. Though he had been treated in the past for his schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder, nothing was done to alleviate his symptoms immediately prior to his death. In his case, the prison shirked their responsibility to protect the health and safety of its inmates, and for that, the family seeks financial compensation.
But there’s more to this story than simple failure to treat. If you look deep enough, you can find that Knott was held in solitary confinement for 11 years prior to his suicide. Solitary confinement is undoubtedly a cause of significant psychological distress, and is often considered a method of torture. Can we really be surprised that someone with severe and enduring mental health problems resorted to suicide in response to decade-long torture? The prison is not just guilty of neglect. They are guilty of using “punishment” that one can reasonably conclude would contribute to the worsening of his mental health condition. They contributed to his death. End of.
The criminal justice system is the largest provider of mental healthcare in the United States. It’s a sad fact, but it is true. One would think that, considering that they are such a massive provider of mental healthcare, the employees would be better trained to handle and respond to psychiatric crisis. However, it has been shown over and over again that this is not the case. The routine use of solitary confinement to control inmates with disruptive psychiatric symptoms shows a serious lack of understanding about how mental health works. Putting an inmate who is being aggressive due to mental health problems into solitary confinement is going to make things worse, not better. Their worsening should be a signal that they need to be removed from solitary confinement, not that they need to be kept there longer. The criminal justice system needs a serious wakeup call, and I don’t think a $175,000 bill is going to do the trick.