“You promised you wouldn’t hurt me.” The words rang on deaf ears, and the electric shocks continued. Eventually, Natasha McKenna fell unconscious, her eyes blackened, her body covered in bruises. Later that day, she would have a finger amputated. After being tasered four times, she would never wake up again.
This horrific handling of schizophrenic inmate Natasha McKenna in a Fairfax County jail was a striking failure on the part of law enforcement. Although McKenna was known to have a severe mental illness when she was brought to the jail, she was not given adequate medical care. As McKenna’s mental condition worsened, six deputies attempted to transport McKenna to a jail in the neighboring town of Alexandria. After agitating her by cuffing her to a cell door, six officers eventually put McKenna in shackles and placed a hood over her head. When the six men struggled to place her in a restraining chair, the shocks began.
This excessive use of force was unnecessary and unacceptable. It is true that McKenna was behaving aggressively as law enforcement officers tried to detain her, attempting to bite and scratch those who approached. However, McKenna was already detained in a jail cell, and the officers could have easily taken a different course of action, such as giving McKenna time to calm down before attempting to relocate her again.
Tasering anyone —mentally ill or not — four times in a row is an incredibly risky maneuver. In fact, anything above three shocks puts a person at risk for cardiac arrest, which McKenna ultimately experienced. McKenna’s death was ruled an accident by the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney, and her reason for death was determined to be “excited shock.” According to Deborah C. Mash, a professor of neurology at the University of Miami, “excited shock” is a medical term for a syndrome in which “heart rates soar…[a person becomes] paranoid and delusional…and body temperatures can reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.” Those who have schizophrenia and bipolar disorde —McKenna had both—are especially prone to experience this. Additionally, it leaves no “anatomic signatures,” and hence is used as the cause of death only when other causes have been ruled out.
There is a striking lack of consensus in the medical community about whether this syndrome exists at all, given the fact that no physical proof of the disorder remains in the bodies of the deceased who are posthumously diagnosed with it. Whether or not this condition exists, officials should have exercised much more caution when tasering an already agitated inmate. Had they been more informed about the risks of using this type of force, it is very possible that this tragedy would have been avoided. Simply put, a mental illness is no justification for excessive force.
According to the Department of Justice, about 24 percent of prison inmates are estimated to have a psychotic disorder — roughly one out of every four people in prison. However, most prisons do not have comprehensive systems in place to separate those that are mentally impaired from those who are not. Nor do they provide them with sufficiently specialized treatment in accordance with the severity of their mental illness.
Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) has released a comprehensive list of problems associated with the incarceration of mentally ill people. McKenna’s case highlights a number of these troubling issues. McKenna exhibited “behavioral issues” that disrupted her environment, engaged in “physical attacks” on correctional staff and faced “deterioration in psychiatric condition” when she was jailed as she went without sufficient treatment. Other problems associated with mentally ill inmates include the fact that inmates often commit suicide in disproportionate numbers, stay in jail for longer periods and are more likely to relapse into criminal behavior.
Since the 1950s, American jails have experienced a rapid influx of mentally ill patients as a result of the deinstitutionalization movement. Ostensibly, the goal of the movement, according to President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Mental Health, was to allow mentally unstable individuals to maintain “dignity” and “self-determination” by being discharged from state facilities. The number of institutionalized patients dropped dramatically, from nearly 550,000 in 1955 to 35,000 in the present day.
However, many of the former patients did not receive adequate medicine and rehabilitation services upon release that would allow them to function in their communities, which led them to commit crimes. Droves of mentally ill patients traded in their psychiatric wards for cellblocks, hardly receiving the type of “dignity” the reformers had in mind. Due to this drastic increase in mentally ill inmates, prison policies better responding to the specific needs of mentally ill people have been slow to catch up. However, meaningful reforms can still be made by increasing discussions on this pervasive problem, and urging jail officials to make mental health treatment a central focus of the U.S. prison system.
However short the deinstitutionalization movement fell of its goal, we still ought to strive toward its ideal of ensuring freedom and dignity for mentally ill individuals, and apply it within the context of our prison system. Increasing the number of mental health professionals who oversee the conduct of prison officials, for instance, would help to inculcate a sense of accountability for their actions. Additionally, more frequent evaluations of prisoners’ mental states should be put into place. This would ensure that prisons are making meaningful progress in helping inmates to improve their mental health states. By simply educating prison officials more on the specific needs of inmates with varied mental illnesses, however, we can allow mentally ill people to be treated with greater patience and empathy — a crucial first step to prevent tragedies like Natasha McKenna’s from happening again.