To: Evelyn Ridley-Turner, commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction Dear commissioner, Do you hear that? It’s a cry for help. I’ve written about Michael Parrish several times before (“More Time and More Time,” July 2-9, 2003), and talked with members of your staff about him a lot. Michael has struggled with severe mental illness since he was a child. He was first thrown into your prison system over a decade ago, after a botched teen-age escape from LaRue Carter Hospital.
Department of Correction Commissioner Evelyn Ridley-Turner
Michael is now 27 years old, and he has a seemingly permanent spot in your Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. His daily existence in the SHU is like a bad dream from which he can’t awake. Michael is on heavy doses of thorazine and held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a windowless 6-foot-by-10-foot cell. For the other hour, he is placed in shackles and walked to solitary “rec” in a 20-foot-by-10-foot area. Michael should have finished his sentence from the LaRue Carter escape years ago, but his mental illness, variously diagnosed as bipolar disorder and conduct disorder, has grown much worse while in your custody. Michael hasn’t tasted freedom since he was 16 years old, but he has managed to commit a string of senseless crimes in prison. Acts like setting his own cell on fire and sending a phony anthrax threat to a judge have added years to his original sentence. His scheduled release date from the isolation of the SHU is June 24, 2016. As you likely know, the SHU is a psychologically toxic atmosphere. Psychiatrists like Dr. Terry Kupers, author of Prison Madness, and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Stuart Grassian call places like the SHU “breeding grounds for mental illness.” They say the eventual release of inmates confined in this brutal setting is a time bomb waiting to explode on society. Michael Parrish spends every day in extreme psychological pain. He is suicidal. Again, none of this is likely to be a surprise to you. Many of the tormented men condemned to the SHU are on a constant quest to find a way to take their own lives. SHU inmates have set their cells on fire and hung themselves. Michael has tried both without success, but a couple of his fellow SHU inmates were able to do the trick earlier this year. One SHU prisoner recently choked himself to death by swallowing a sock. Commissioner, I understand some of this is not your fault. It’s not your fault that decades of neglect by elected officials has made jails and prisons the largest providers of mental health services in the country. Your spokesperson Rich Larsen told me, “We readily admit that the SHU is not the most efficient location for dealing with mental health issues, but with funding limitations and the space we have, we’re doing the best we can.” But, with Michael, you’re not doing the best you can. Dr. Ned Masbaum, a Carmel psychiatrist who the Marion County Superior Court appointed to examine Michael earlier this year, let you know that the young man is in “intense internal turmoil” and that Michael’s mental illness is worsening because of his confinement in the SHU. Masbaum recommended you remove Michael from the SHU and transfer him to your psychiatric hospital facility in New Castle. Your psychiatric team at the SHU reviewed Masbaum’s recommendation, and said no. According to your spokespeople, the prison psychiatrists concluded Michael is ineligible for that in-patient treatment because his mental illness doesn’t interfere with his daily needs, nor is he self-damaging. With all due respect, commissioner, that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test. Your own agency records show what your staff calls “an extensive history of suicidal behavior” by Michael, including swallowing razor blades and countless incidents of self-mutilation. He was severely burned when he set fire to his own cell, and he tried to hang himself from a basketball goal. During his mother’s last visit, Michael told her that he is looking for a chance to run from the guards. He is hoping they will shoot him. For years, Michael Parrish has cried out for help to a wide array of people. So far, no one has listened. Now I’m forwarding his cry to you. A few days ago, I told Michael’s mother, Jean Spears, that I was writing you this open letter. As always, she appreciates folks’ concern for her son. But any faith she ever had that you will do the right thing has drained out of her long ago. “They haven’t done anything to help Michael, and they’re not going to do anything to help Michael,” she said. “He’s been there long enough to show that.” Commissioner Ridley-Turner, now is your chance to prove her wrong.