THE BLOG
06/22/2007 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like Paris, Thousands of Other Mentally Disordered Women Stare at Jail Ceilings

An anguished Kathy Hilton loudly complained to Fox News show host Greta Van Susteren that her daughter spends long hours staring at the ceiling in her private cell at the Los Angeles County Jail. That ignited more public wails that since being dumped back in jail, Hilton continues to get the red carpet treatment. A relay of guards, psychologists, and doctors stumbled over each other to cater to her whims in her private cell.

This was not a totally bad thing. The public rage over Hilton's royal treatment momentarily cast a flicker of glare on the plight of the hundreds of other women in the L.A. County jail that suffer mental disorders but don't have a private room and a wave of doting jail personnel that deal with their medical needs. It's not malicious or deliberate neglect on the part of authorities, or even that Hilton threw her privileged weight around to get upscale treatment.

The L.A. County jails do medical exams, intake screenings, and interviews to determine the proper treatment and medication for a prisoner. But massive overcrowding and the revolving door nature of prisoners coming and going in urban jails, makes it virtually impossible for jail authorities to provide private rooms or cells for any but the worst medical cases, or in Hilton's case, the most privileged. L.A. County Jail is no exception to this rule. Though Hilton is a glaring example of the favored status that some prisoners receive, she's hardly the only one. There's a troubling pecking order in many jails that determine who get timely medical attention, and who doesn't. That order is riddled with class, race and gender bias.

This was amply documented in a comprehensive study of the treatment of mentally ill women in prison a decade ago by a team of Northwestern University medical and psychologists. The researchers found that thousands of women prisoners suffer astronomical rates of depression, and their rate is four times higher than that of male prisoners. In far too many cases, their illness goes undetected. That's not due solely to the chronic shortage of funds, trained medical personnel, and treatment facilities for mentally challenged female prisoners. It also has to due with class and race bias.

A white woman, who's a high school graduate, with a documented history of mental illness such as schizophrenia or depression, and is a first time offender, was eighty times more likely to receive care and treatment. In many cases, they had family, a private physician, and an attorney to lobby jail officials for specialized treatment. Jail officials made a greater effort to make sure they got it right when it came to treatment for these individuals. Any decision they make on treatment was much more likely to be scrutinized by their family members, doctors, and attorneys. The last thing they wanted was to be called on the carpet for a medical screw-up in their cases, or slapped with a liability lawsuit.

That was pretty much the excuse that L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca gave to fend off the storm of public criticism over Hilton's special treatment. He insisted that he met with doctors, reviewed medical documents, and tests that purportedly proved that Hilton was in bad mental straights and needed the specialized care that she got.

The type or even availability of medical services for poor black, or Latino women is the exact reverse of that for white women. This is especially true if they have multiple arrests and jailings and have a history of drug use. If they suffer from a severe mental impairment such as schizophrenia or a manic disorder, jail officials and medical personnel are more likely to minimize or even ignore their problem. They simply chalk their mental impairment up to drug use or withdrawal symptoms.

Though the Northwestern study on the condition of mentally impaired women in jail is a decade old, there is little evidence that things have gotten any better, and much evidence that things have worsened. At the time of the study there were 50,000 women in America's jails and prisons. According to the Sentencing Project, the Washington, D.C. based criminal justice system reform group, the number of women behind bars has doubled in the past decade. In fact, women are being jailed at a faster rate than men.

The sheer number of women jailed and the escalating cutbacks in state and federal funds to improve and expand jail and neighborhood community mental health services have increased the crisis of the jailed mentally impaired. They make up a significant number of the estimated quarter million prisoners that suffer mental disorders who are warehoused in the nation's jails.
For a relatively brief moment, Hilton's fame, name and wealth shielded her from the neglect and abuse that many mentally challenged women prisoners routinely get. But it did not spare her the agony of staring at a ceiling in America's jails in a medical ward just like thousands of other mentally impaired women do.