Life in Jail, Made Worse During COVID-19

An interview with correctional psychiatrist Elizabeth Ford

Bret S. Stetka, MD

Disclosures

April 14, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Jails provide ideal conditions for the spread of COVID-19, as made clear by the distressing stories coming out of New York City. Beyond the very substantial risks posed by the virus itself, practitioners tasked with attending to the large proportion of inmates with mental illness now face additional challenges.

Elizabeth Ford, MD

Medscape Psychiatry editorial director Bret Stetka, MD, spoke with Elizabeth Ford, MD, former chief of psychiatry for NYC Health + Hospitals/Correctional Health Services and current chief medical officer for the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES ), a community organization focused on the needs of people touched by the criminal justice system, to find out how COVID-19 may be reshaping the mental health care of incarcerated patients. As noted by Ford, who authored the 2017 memoir Sometimes Amazing Things Happen: Heartbreak and Hope on the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Prison Ward, the unique vulnerabilities of this population were evident well before the coronavirus pandemic's arrival on our shores.

What are the unique health and mental health challenges that can arise in correctional facilities during crises like this, in particular, infectious crises? Or are we still learning this as COVID-19 spreads?

I think it's important to say that they are still learning it, and I don't want to speak for them. I left Correctional Health Services on February 14 and we weren't aware of [all the risks posed by COVID-19] at that point.

I worked in the jail proper for five and a half years. Prior to that I spent a decade at Bellevue Hospital, where I took care of the same patients, who were still incarcerated but also hospitalized. In those years, the closest I ever came to managing something like this was Superstorm Sandy, which obviously had much different health implications.

All of the things that the community is struggling with in terms of the virus also apply in jails and prisons: identifying people who are sick, keeping healthy people from getting sick, preventing sick people from getting worse, separating populations, treatment options, testing options, making sure people follow the appropriate hygiene recommendations. It's just amplified immensely because these are closed systems that tend to be poorly sanitized, crowded, and frequently forgotten or minimized in public health and political conversations.

A really important distinction is that individuals who are incarcerated do not have control over their behavior in the way that they would in the outside world. They may want to wash their hands frequently and to stay six feet away from everybody, but they can't because the environment doesn't allow for that. I know that everyone—correctional officers, health staff, incarcerated individuals, the city—is trying to figure out how to do those things in the jail. The primary challenge is that you don't have the ability to do the things that you know are right to prevent the spread of the infection.

I know you can't speak to what's going on at specific jails at the moment, but what sort of psychiatric measures would a jail system put forth in a time like this?

It's a good question, because like everybody, they're having to balance the safety of the staff and the patients. Mental health interventions are mostly in person and very time-intensive, and social distancing guidelines don't allow for that now.

I expect that the jails are trying to stratify patients based on severity, both physical and psychological, although increasingly it's likely harder to separate those who are sick from those who aren't. In areas where patients are sick, I think the mental health staff are likely doing as much intervention as they can safely, including remote work like telehealth. Telehealth actually got its start in prisons, because they couldn't get enough providers to come in and do the work in person.

I've read a lot of the criticism around this, specifically at Rikers Island, where inmates are still closely seated at dining tables, with no possibility of social distancing. [Editor's note: At the time of this writing, Rikers Island experienced its first inmate death due to COVID-19 ]. But I see the other side of it. What are jails supposed to do when limited to such a confined space?

That's correct. I think it is hard for someone who has not lived or worked intensely in these settings to understand how difficult it can be to implement even the most basic hygiene precautions. There are all sorts of efforts happening to create more space, to reduce admissions coming into the jail, to try to expedite discharges out, to offer a lot more sanitation options. I think they may have opened up a jail that was empty to allow for more space.

In a recent Medscape commentary, Dr Jeffrey Lieberman from Columbia University detailed how a crisis like this may affect those in different tiers of mental illness. Interestingly, there are data showing that those with serious mental illness—schizophrenia, severe mania—often aren't panicked by disasters. I assume that a sizable percentage of the jail population has severe mental illness, so I was curious about what your experience is, about how they may handle it psychologically.

The rate of serious mental illness in jail is roughly 16% or so, which is three or four times higher than the general population.

Although I don't know if these kinds of crises differentially affect people with serious mental illness, I do believe very strongly that situations like this, for those who are and who are not incarcerated, can exacerbate or cause symptoms like anxiety, depression, and elevated levels of fear—fear about the unknown, fear of illness or death, fear of isolation.

For people who are incarcerated and who understandably may struggle with trusting the system that is supposed to be keeping them safe, I am concerned that this kind of situation will make that lack of trust worse. I worry that when they get out of jail they will be less inclined to seek help. I imagine that the staff in the jails are doing as much as they can to support the patients, but the staff are also likely experiencing some version of the abandonment and frustration that the patients may feel.

I've also seen—not in a crisis of this magnitude but in other crisis situations—that a community really develops among everybody in incarcerated settings. A shared crisis forces everybody to work together in ways that they may not have before. That includes more tolerance for behaviors, more understanding of differences, including mental illness and developmental delay. More compassion.

Do you mean between prisoners and staff? Among everybody?

Everybody. In all of the different relationships you can imagine.

That speaks to the vulnerability and good nature in all of us. It's encouraging.

It is, although it's devastating to me that it happens because they collectively feel so neglected and forgotten. Shared trauma can bind people together very closely.

What psychiatric conditions did you typically see in New York City jails?

For the many people with serious mental illness, it's generally schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses and bipolar disorder—really severe illnesses that do not do well in confinement settings. There's a lot of anxiety and depression, some that rises to the level of serious illness. There is near universal substance use among the population.

There is also almost universal trauma exposure, whether early-childhood experiences or the ongoing trauma of incarceration. Not everyone has PTSD, but almost everyone behaves in a traumatized way. As you know, in the United States, incarceration is very racially and socioeconomically biased; the trauma of poverty can be incredibly harsh.

What I didn't see were lots of people with antisocial personality disorder or diagnoses of malingering. That may surprise people. There's an idea that everybody in jail is a liar and lacks empathy. I didn't experience that. People in jail are doing whatever they can to survive.

What treatments are offered to these patients?

In New York City, all of the typical treatments that you would imagine for people with serious mental illness are offered in the jails: individual and group psychotherapy, medication management, substance use treatment, social work services, even creative art therapy. Many other jails are not able to do even a fraction of that.

In many jails there also has to be a lot of supportive therapy. This involves trying to help people get through a very anxiety-provoking and difficult time, when they frequently don't know when they are going to be able to leave. I felt the same way as many of the correction officers—that the best thing for these patients is to be out of the jail, to be out of that toxic environment.

We have heard for years that the jail system and prison system is the new psych ward. Can you speak to how this occurred and the influence of deinstitutionalization?

When deinstitutionalization happened, there were not enough community agencies available that were equipped to take care of patients who were previously in hospitals. But I think a larger contributor to the overpopulation of people with mental illness in jails and prisons was the war on drugs. It disproportionately affected people who were poor, of color, and who had mental illness. Mental illness and substance use frequently occur together.

At the same time as deinstitutionalization and the war on drugs, there was also a tightening up of the laws relating to admission to psychiatric hospitals. The civil rights movement helped define the requirements that someone had to be dangerous and mentally ill in order to get admitted against their will. While this was an important protection against more indiscriminate admissions of the past, it made it harder to get into hospitals; the state hospitals were closed but the hospitals that were open were now harder to get into.

You mentioned that prisoners are undergoing trauma every day. Is this inherent to punitive confinement, or is it something that can be improved upon in the United States?

It's important that you said "in the United States" as part of that question. Our approach to incarceration in the US is heavily punishment-based.

Compared to somewhere like Scandinavia, where inmates and prisoners are given a lot more support?

Or England or Canada. The challenge with comparing the United States to Scandinavia is that we are socioeconomically, demographically, and politically so different. But yes, my understanding about the Scandinavian systems are that they have a much more rehabilitative approach to incarceration. Until the US can reframe the goals of incarceration to focus on helping individuals behave in a socially acceptable way, rather than destroy their sense of self-worth, we will continue to see the impact of trauma on generations of lives.

Now, that doesn't mean that every jail and prison in this country is abusive. But taking away autonomy and freedom, applying inconsistent rules, using solitary confinement, and getting limited to no access to people you love all really destroy a person's ability to behave in a way that society has deemed acceptable.

Assuming that mental health professionals such as yourself have a more compassionate understanding of what's going on psychologically with the inmates, are you often at odds with law enforcement in the philosophy behind incarceration?

That's an interesting question. When I moved from the hospital to the jail, I thought that I would run into a lot of resistance from the correction officer staff. I just thought, we're coming at this from a totally different perspective: I'm trying to help these people and see if there's a way to safely get them out, and you guys want to punish them.

It turns out that I was very misguided in that view, because it seemed to me that everybody wanted to do what was right for the patient. My perspective about what's right involved respectful care, building self-esteem, treating illness. The correction officer's perspective seemed to be keeping them safe, making sure that they can get through the system as quickly as possible, not having them get into fights. Our perspectives may have been different, but the goals were the same. I want all that stuff that the officers want as well.

It's important to remember that the people who work inside jails and prisons are usually not the ones who are making the policies about who goes in. I haven't had a lot of exposure working directly with many policymakers. I imagine that my opinions might differ from theirs in some regards.

For those working in the US psychiatric healthcare system, what do you want them to know about mental health care in the correctional setting?

Patients in correctional settings are mostly the same patients seen in the public mental health system setting. The vast majority of people who spend time in jail or prison return to the community. But there's a difference in how patients are perceived by many mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, depending on whether they have criminal justice experience or not.

I would encourage everybody to try to keep an open mind and remember that these patients are cycling through a very difficult system, for many reasons that are at least rooted in community trauma and poverty, and that it doesn't change the nature of who they are. It doesn't change that they're still human beings and they still deserve care and support and treatment.

In this country, patients with mental illness and incarceration histories are so vulnerable and are often black, brown, and poor. It's an incredible and disturbing representation of American society. But I feel like you can help a lot by getting involved in the frequently dysfunctional criminal justice system. Psychiatrists and other providers have an opportunity to fix things from the inside out.

What's your new role at CASES?

I'm the chief medical officer at CASES. It's a large community organization that provides mental health treatment, case management, employment and education services, alternatives to incarceration, and general support for people who have experienced criminal justice involvement. CASES began operating in the 1960s, and around 2000 it began developing programs specifically addressing the connection between serious mental illness and criminal justice system involvement. For example, we take care of the patients who are coming out of the jails or prisons, or managing patients that the courts have said should go to treatment instead of incarceration.

I took the job because as conditions for individuals with serious mental illness started to improve in the jails, I started to hear more frequently from patients that they were getting better treatment in the jail than out in the community. That did not sit well with me and seemed to be almost the opposite of how it should be.

I also have never been an outpatient public psychiatrist. Most of the patients I treat live most of their lives outside of a jail or a hospital. It felt really important for me to understand the lives of these patients and to see if all of the resistance that I've heard from community psychiatrists about taking care of people who have been in jail is really true or not.

It was a logical transition for me. I'm following the patients and basically deinstitutionalizing myself.

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