Cruel and Unusual: Some Mentally Ill Prisoners Forced to Wear Padlocked Jumpsuits

Human Rights

Several prisons in New York are requiring people serving time in correctional facilities to wear padlocked jumpsuits to prevent them from exposing their genitals to female correctional officers, the Marshall Project reports.

The disturbing practice, called Inmate Exposure Control, is a pilot program taking place at several New York state prisons that require people serving time who expose or masturbate in front of staff or visitors to wear the padlocked suits whenever they exit their cells. The person’s cell is also marked with a large yellow sign reading, “EXPOSER.” Those who refuse to wear the suits are not allowed to leave their cells.

Correctional officers at Marcy Correctional Facility, just outside of Utica, NY, placed Vincent Barrow in the padlocked jumpsuit in 2011 after he began exposing himself repeatedly to female staff in 2008. Staff believed the new approach would help keep his impulses under control. But Barrow disagrees, saying the suit left him subject to “scorn, ridicule and unusual punishment.” The guards, he claims, told him their only alternative was to place him in a restraint chair with his limbs bound.

Barrow wasn’t allowed to leave his cell for a 17-month period because he refused to wear the padlocked suit. As a result, he says he was unable to attend prison programs and denied depression medication. Barrow, who claims to suffer from depression and exhibitionist disorder, filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2012 in which he argued the jumpsuit violated constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“I’m supposed to be treated for my issues in confidence,” he wrote in the complaint. “With this sign over my door and this suit, this whole prison population knows what I am being treated for.”

Two federal judges who ruled on Barrow’s complaint said the jumpsuit was a minor inconvenience.

The program requires selected prisoners to wear the suits for 30-day periods, but documents obtained by the Marshall Project show that some inmates have worn the suits for several months. Most of the people who were forced to wear the suits in 2010-'11 were mentally ill individuals housed in special medical units; the policy was expanded in 2012 to include inmates in solitary confinement.

The program, which started in 2010 at Marcy Correctional Facility, has been adopted throughout the state. So far, a total of eight correctional facilities are participating in the pilot program. At least 80 people have been forced to wear the padlocked jumpsuits since 2011, though the exact number is unknown.

Mental health experts believe the program is inhumane.

“I’ve never heard of such suits being used to treat exhibitionism,” said Richard Krueger, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University who specializes in sexual behavior. He likened the suits to chastity belts. “This is an extreme form of restraint,” he told the Marshall Project.

Brenda Smith, an American University law professor whose research has focused on prison sex issues, told the Marshall Project that the program sounded “twisted” and “stigmatizing” and that labeling inmates can be humiliating and dangerous.

“Prisons are institutions outside of society,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean they don't have to comport with common standards of decency.”

New York isn’t the only state using restraining jumpsuits to deal with prisoners who expose themselves. South Carolina also uses “pink jumpsuits,” but the program will be discontinued because it is “no longer effective.”

Correctional professionals who support using the jumpsuits claim they are, in part, used to protect staff. They says the suits allow for some movement.

Some critics wonder if correctional facilities are doing enough to work with prisoners who are a challenge to discipline. AlterNet recently reported how a group of correctional officers known as the “Beat-up Squad” beat to death a mentally ill man at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, in Beacon, NY, who was reportedly giving them a hard time. None of the guards have been charged in connection with this crime, raising the question of why American prisons do not have independent oversight boards monitoring staff conduct.

Human Rights Watch reported in May that mentally ill people serving time are routinely abused by prison staff. Although treatment is a better alternative than force, correctional officers often resort to the later, Human Rights Watch noted. In a national survey cited in the report, people with mental health issues rack up one-and-a-half times more infractions (rule violations) than those who do not have such issues.

Part of the problem that feeds into corrections culture, the report says, is the assumption that prisoners always make rational choices. So if someone refuses to leave his cell or exposes himself, it is assumed he is going out of his way to break the rules. That is not always the case, especially for someone who suffers from a mental health issue. The culture that allows cruel corrective measures like padlocked jumpsuits is a manifestation of such assumptions.

Until people serving time are treated like human beings and given the mental health treatment they require, more examples of extreme measures used to deal with challenging persons in prison will surface.

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