Human Rights Watch interviewed several seriously mentally ill prisoners housed in the secure housing unit of New York’s Wende Correctional Facility.491 Of the prisoners interviewed, forty-year-old V.K. appeared the most actively psychotic. Our interview with V.K. took place in a legal visiting room locked from the outside. It was cut short after V.K., a large man with long dreadlocks, wearing blues-brother sunglasses, his front teeth capped with gold, began responding to internal stimuli and, specifically, began talking with an invisible person he called “Peter,” a creature V.K. said told him to stab and hurt people.
Because it was outside normal visiting hours, the Human Rights Watch interviewer had to remain in the general visiting area, adjacent to the legal visiting room, for over an hour, waiting to be allowed to leave the prison. During this time, he could see and hear V.K. and the interactions passing officers had with him. V.K. began a rambling conversation with himself, a crazed smile on his face, started rocking back and forth, and then proceeded to take his clothes off. The guards left V.K. in the interview room for nearly an hour without bringing in an escort to return him to his cell. Correctional officers periodically walked past and made snide comments. One said, “four years in the box ain’t wearing well with him, eh? He’s getting lonely.”
V.K. told Human Rights Watch that his first encounter with mental health services was when he was in fourth grade. “My teacher slapped me and I beat him with a baseball bat,” V.K. stated. “Broke both his legs, one of his arms and cracked his head open. They sent me for mental health, to a hospital.” Whether this childhood memory is based on fact or on fiction is hard to tell, as fantasy and reality seem to blend in V.K.’s mind.
V.K. talked very slowly, stopping at random moments mid-sentence to respond to voices only he can hear. Serving twenty years-to-life for first-degree robbery, he was clearly consumed by fantasies and visions of violence. Because of his extremely violent tendencies, and assaults on prison staff, V.K. has lived in secure housing units since 1998. Inside the special housing unit (SHU), V.K.’s access to mental health services consists of being given psychotropic medications, and occasional cell-front visits from a counselor. V.K. has no out-of-cell counseling, no group therapy, and no mental health programming. Periodically throughout his life he has decompensated to the point where he has had to be removed to a state hospital for the criminally insane after stabbing or threatening to hurt people; from prison, he has also been taken to the Central New York Psychiatric Center. “I was hearing voices,” V.K. stated, describing the last time he was removed from the SHU and sent to the Psychiatric Center.
V.K. claimed that in some of the New York prisons he has been, correctional officers at times have denied him his medications at times. Absent these medications, he said that he gets “very depressed. And sometimes I’m hearing voices; they be telling me to kill police.” Because of his violent behavior, V.K. will likely continue to accumulate time in “the box.”
491 Human Rights Watch interviews with R.P., V.K., et al., Wende Correctional Facility, Alden, New York, September 13, 2002.