Increased scrutiny is being directed at Rikers Island jail in New York City, after the Associated Press revealed the disturbing case of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill man who died last September after guards locked him in his cell alone for seven consecutive days and failed to monitor him closely.
Ballard was isolated in his cell after he made a lewd gesture to a female guard, according to the AP report. Guards denied him medication, allowed him to clog his toilet so that it overflowed and didn’t notice as he stripped off his clothes and tied a rubber band tightly around his genitals. While guards peered through the window in the steel door, they never went inside. Eventually Ballard, 39, was found naked and unresponsive on the floor, covered in feces, his genitals swollen and badly infected. He died at a hospital hours later.
“He didn’t have to leave this world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment,” his mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, told AP from her Houston home. “He was a caring young man.”
The AP obtained documents that revealed the circumstances of Ballard’s death, which occurred just five months before another Rikers inmate in a similar mental health unit died in a cell that climbed to an unbearable 101 degrees because of malfunctioning heating equipment.
According to the AP story, “Ballard’s death is only the latest example of how poorly equipped the city’s jail system is to handle the mentally ill, who make up about 40 percent of the 12,000 inmates in the nation’s most populous city. A third of those inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
Ballard had been diagnosed as schizophrenic more than a decade ago and also had diabetes, according to his family.
Correction Department spokesman Robin Campbell told the AP yesterday that Ballard’s case is under investigation.
Campbell said they are working to make sure “a similar tragedy will not happen again.”
Anonymous officials told the AP Ballard likely died from sepsis, an infection that spread through his body.
Based on the account of Cathy Potler, executive director of the city Board of Correction, and obtained by the AP through a public records request, Ballard was in a unit where inmates are ordinarily allowed in and out of their cells to mingle with others for 14 hours a day. Butt he was locked up continuously for seven days and not given his medication for most of that time—though it wasn’t clear what type of medication he was taking.
He was confined on Sept. 4 after he stared for hours at a female officer, rolled up his shirt to look like a penis and thrust it toward her, Potler said.
After Ballard’s death, Department of Health officials made changes, including transferring the unit chief to another facility and retraining staffers on how to conduct rounds and other procedures.
The AP says it has long been a complaint of jail officers that they aren’t sufficiently trained to handle severely mentally ill inmates. The training amounts to 21.5 hours of mental health training during 16 weeks of academy instruction, plus a three-hour annual refresher.
Ballard’s death was an example of “non-communication between medical staff and uniform staff,” Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said in a statement.
Dr. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist who was a co-author of a report critical of jail officials’ use of solitary confinement, said, “Correctional institutions are such a poor substitute for mental hospitals, which is what they’re basically functioning as in our society. The problem is the correction setting is not fit to deliver the proper care, and in fact many of the settings exacerbate their symptoms.”