Ryan Allison, the Utah State Prison (USP) inmate who died on Saturday after diving headfirst into the floor of his cell, was a Disability Law Center (DLC) client. We communicated with him for more than two years. This is part of the rest of his story.
Following Allison’s transfer from the Utah State Hospital, prison treatment notes and Allison’s correspondence with the DLC reveal near constant auditory and visual hallucinations. He almost immediately began a vicious cycle of “noncompliance.” Misbehavior related to his mental illness led to punishment in solitary, which in turn led to further deterioration, further misbehavior, and additional time in solitary. From 2011 to 2013, Allison spent over 586 days in "punitive isolation."
His prison records document dozens of suicide attempts and self-harm incidents, mostly in the apparent hope of getting out of solitary confinement and into the infirmary. At one point in 2011, prison mental health staff made the following notation: “[Allison] then added he will harm himself in U1 (super max). When asked how, he says, ‘I will find a way.’ He then said that he would likely jump off something and strike his head."
Allison, 22, is now dead. Subject to severe, persistent mental illness, he spent the last three years of his brief life in a bewildering nightmare. Deemed "guilty but mentally ill" under the law, he was nonetheless in prison, not a hospital. The system failed him at every step — from his conviction in the criminal courts to his suicide last weekend.
The USP mental health staff does their best and deserves credit for taking on one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. But with a 1,000:1 patient/therapist ratio, they are hard-pressed to provide anything beyond “crisis management.” At a minimum, the prison mental health system must be funded at the level necessary to fulfill what is both a legal and moral duty. When we choose to confine people with mental illness in our prisons, we take on an obligation that goes beyond incarcerating their bodies; we are also obligated to treat their illnesses and make some attempt to heal their minds.
Our state is currently engaged in a wholesale reassessment of the entire criminal justice system. Hopefully the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and the ongoing prison relocation project will provide the opportunity for the Legislature and the Department of Corrections to reinvent the manner in which inmates receive mental health treatment. If Allison's story tells us anything, it is that more money and staff is desperately needed at the Utah State Prison. Without it, all of us will have to answer for more needless tragedy.
Aaron Kinikini is a civil rights attorney and legal director of the Disability Law Center.