Commentary: Firsthand Depiction of Mental Health Treatment within Virginia D.O.C.

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By Darren Bondhill

My name is Darren Bondhill and I’m currently serving a 72-year 6-month sentence for first degree murder along with multiple bank robberies and firearm violations. This is my second incarceration in the VA. D.O.C, the first in 1997. Despite years of substance abuse and self-injurious behaviors my initial introduction to mental health came in 2001. Drowning in despair, isolated and with no other viable recourse, at least in my perception, I found solace in self-mutilation. With crude tools I removed the outer flesh on my legs from the knee down. Once scabs formed I used a razor to remove them before proceeding to wrap my legs in plastic and using torn sheets to cut off the circulation. Obviously, infection ensued causing my hospitalization several times.

On four occasions I was involuntarily committed to the State Mental Health Hospital to receive treatment. While in the mental health hospital, I met with a treatment team once a month which consists of a psychologist, social worker, recreation worker and therapist. In these meetings, a treatment plan would be discussed, medication added or adjusted, etc. For the remaining 29/30 days of the month, I’d sit in my assigned pod watching T.V. or playing table games with other patients or treatment officers. No therapeutic classes, no substance abuse courses, no classes on self-mutilation, no education on mental health or related issues. My day was consumed with television and games. After an allotted time, I’d be returned to general prison population basically with the same unresolved mental, behavior issues that burdened me in the first place. In general population, treatment is non-existent unless you self-harm. One or two, if fortunate, therapists would be in charge of 1,200 inmates. Requests for services are ignored; security (C/Os) are grossly indifferent to inmates with mental health issues to the point of negligence. I have heard C/Os encourage inmates to kill themselves during a crisis. What do they care? They go home in an hour.

I’ve seen inmates in mental health crises beaten, ridiculed, and attacked by canines. Suicide precautions are used as punishment here rather than a safe haven from self-harm. Policy states that the suicide cells are to be used a minimum of 72 hours or until the inmate is no longer a threat to self or others. I was confined to a suicide strip cell for 6 weeks after returning from the hospital for self-injurious behavior. The logic as explained to me by my QMHP-Qualified Mental Health Provider was that since I had a history of self-harm the strip cell would be used as a deterrent for future behaviors. No clothes, no running water, no bedding, only a smock and security blanket. I had to eat with my hands despite having any toilet paper only upon request. The officer would give me a few sheets to clean myself after defecation. Mind you I exhibited no self-injurious behavior after entering the suicide cell, nor threats against myself or others.

Still they left me in that strip cell for 6 weeks, freezing and sleeping on the floor. These are the same people I’m supposed to reach out to in crisis or when I’m depressed or pondering hurting myself. One incident on the same compound I inserted several razors, spoon handles and pens in my penis. My roommate found out and informed the floor officer who in turn notified the Watch commander. Upon arriving at medical the nurse protested about not being paid to touch inmates’ genitals and there was nothing she could do for me. Policy states that I be placed in strip cell on suicide precautions until mental health could access me. The Watch commander did not want to do the paperwork and openly chastised me for not waiting until the next shift to hurt myself. He put me back in my cell so that the impending shift could deal with me. Once again, since I had a history of this behavior, I was placed in suicide precautions 23 days with no medical attention. Mind you I had not received medical attention. I was told several times that since I wanted to continue this unacceptable behavior I’d have to suffer. On day 23 someone of importance came to my cell and I showed him my penis which was swollen and infected by then. Only then was I sent to the hospital where I had surgery and stayed 5 days. The urologist was outraged after learning I remained in that state for 23 days.

Mental Health is now a trendy topic. More awareness has been focused on cause and treatment for people in society. For prisoners treatment is an afterthought. Perfunctory at best. What the public fails to realize is that over 80% of inmates will be rejoining society at some point. Most with unresolved mental health and substance abuse issues. Right now I am in the E.P.I.C program. Enhanced Prosocial Interaction Community. This is a multimillion dollar federally funded program. We have two-hour long programs on Wednesday. The curriculum used wasn’t even designed for inmates. It was created for people in society. Most of it is about managing stress and proper prosocial behaviors. Everyone in this program has a history of self-injurous behaviors. Most of us have substance abuse history. All of us have various mental health diagnosis. All this and yet we have no classes on mental illness, substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors and preventions, criminology, fatherhood classes, etc. We watch an Andy Griffith episode then answer questions about what we watched.

How is Andy Griffith conductive to preventing self-destructive behavior? Do I just take 10 deep breaths and blow it out my toes? Two hours on Wednesday—the rest of my week is spent in the cell watching TV or playing on my tablet. We get one hour out of the cell per tier, top/bottom which equals about 5 hours per day. This is your tax money at work. This pod can hold 88 inmates, right now there are only 8. Another program, VA provides has you handcuffed to a table and your feet shackled to the floor during the program. You receive about 5 hours out of cell time for program and recreation, other than that you are locked in a cell. You cannot refuse the program once enrolled. One inmate stayed in his cell 2 years rather than participate. On this compound, brothers have been in cells for years by refusing to participate. This is compulsive mental health treatment with isolation being the punishment for non-compliance.

Again over 80% of these inmates will be rejoining society.

So many inmates suffer through various mental health issues. In prison only those who hurt themselves receive what in all actuality is the illusion of treatment. Not one staff member involved in this program has spoken to me on an individual basis about my mental illness. Not one! When I graduate from this program, I’ll leave with the same issues that landed me here.

My actions and behaviors are a direct reflection of the choices I made. Accountability rests with me alone. But when I seek help to rectify these disorders where am I supposed to turn? 1,200 inmates and two mental health providers. In this program, we see our provider once a week unless someone hurts themselves. When she does make a round, we are forced to speak with her through our cell doors while she’s accompanied by security. In actuality, she’s a stranger that I am supposed to trust with my deepest secrets and vulnerabilities.

Life and death is possibly in her hands through the counseling she does or does not provide. Yet all I’m worth to her is a few minutes through my door maybe once a month. This is mental health in prison.

It is easier to self medicate with illicit drugs than to speak with a QMHP. Treament here is reactive and not proactive. All they understand is blood and disrespect, two proven ways to receive treatment. That means being naked in a freezing cell, but at least someone cared to do the damn paperwork.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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