WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA9)--We have serious accusations to report involving a mentally ill inmate and how he's allegedly being isolated in a Maryland prison.
Paul Smith's parents, both of whom have backgrounds in law enforcement, say he's been in solitary confinement for nearly FOUR years and has been denied visitors and phone calls for the last two years.
If the story was unfolding in a foreign prison, there would likely be a public outcry. An organization like the American Red Cross might be sent in to check on this inmate's well-being. But in several states, including Maryland, there are no prison monitors.
Said Paul's father, Mike Smith, a veteran police officer:
"I looked at Paul's 20 years as a death sentence to be quite honest. This isn't 20 years. You've sentenced Paul to death."
A death sentence because 27 year-old Paul Smith is mentally ill and locked up in Maryland's only maximum security prison, the North Branch Correctional Institute in Cumberland.
"As far as we know, he's not receiving any treatment," said Mike. Asked if he was receiving any medication, he said, "Not that we're aware of."
Convicted of a string of unarmed home burglaries, Paul was sentenced to a staggering 80 years, 60 of which were suspended.
"Paul has by far gotten more than people who have taken someone else's life," said Kathy Smith, Paul's Mother.
Paul's parents further allege he has been held in isolation here since 2009 because of his inability to conform to prison rules. The Department of Corrections calls it 'segregation.' The Smiths call it solitary confinement.
"For people with mental illness, solitary confinement is shattering. They get sicker, they mutilate themselves, they attempt suicide, and often, they succeed," said David Fathi, the Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.
Over the last 2 years, the Smiths say the prison upped his punishment-preventing all calls and visitors... indefinitely. Even from his own parents.
"That's probably one of the most destructive things that you could possibly do to someone with mental illness," said Fathi. "That is number one going to create great suffering, and number two, almost certainly going to aggravate his mental illness."
It may also be illegal under federal law.
"Every court that has ruled on the issue has said that keeping people with mental illness in solitary confinement violates the eighth amendment. It constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment," said Fathi.
"We have grave concern for his welfare," said Kathy Smith, Paul's mother.
Diagnosed with autism and ADHD at a young age, Paul was later treated for bipolar disease, paranoia, impulse control and explosive disorders, among others.
He won an array of Special Olympics medals. But there were years the family lived in fear... fear that mentally ill Paul would eclipse kind-hearted, loving Paul.
Kathy recalled a frightening incident, "He was in my car and he took out a knife and he said this is a very sharp, sharp knife and he proceeded to cut his seat while I was sitting in the driver's seat. That was the scariest moment."
The Smiths tried conventional punishments like grounding him or taking away his television. It never worked.
"No, you better get ready for war. It was war," said Mike. Kathy agreed, "It was war."
His parents said, "If you did any of those, there's hell to be paid. There was a huge tantrum. He was going to retaliate. It wasn't like he was going to sit in his room, well fine, I don't like my parents anymore. That's when property was going to get destroyed. You're going to have to barricade yourself in a bedroom to keep him from getting at you."
When Paul turned 18, he gained the legal right to refuse medication and other treatment.
"Maryland laws need to change. Get my son the help that he greatly, gravely needs right now," said Kathy.
The Smiths are not asking for Paul to be freed from prison. They are begging the system to provide him with help.
"It just never goes away," said Mike. "We're always thinking about him, we're thinking of the next way to help him, if we can. A lot of doors have been closed in our faces, but you know what? Some day we'll open the right door."
Because of privacy issues, the Maryland Department of Corrections could not address Paul's case specifically. But a spokesperson told us the agency does NOT use isolated confinement as a matter of practice, but DOES use either disciplinary or administrative segregation. Whatever you call it, for an inmate, it adds up to the same thing: one hour a day outside a prison cell, five days a week.
On a related note: just days after we started asking questions of the Department of Corrections, the Smiths were invited to come visit Paul. They did so on Friday and were alarmed at what they saw. He is completely delusional and appears to have deteriorated dramatically.
Mental illness is rampant among prisoners. According to the Department of Justice, nationwide 50-percent of the people entering the system suffer from mental illness.
In Paul's case, it's a disturbing Catch 22: he can't conform to prison rules because he's mentally ill. So according to his parents, he is punished and put in isolation, which exacerbates his mental illness.
His parents believe that Maryland law needs to be changed so treatment for mental illness can be mandatory for anyone over the age of 18.
March 15, 2013 Response from the Department of Corrections:
"In response to WUSA's story about an inmate in the Maryland prison system, the Dept. of Public Safety & Correctional Services has provided the station this response:
Based on federal and state law, in Maryland's prison system, an inmate has the right to control what information is provided about his or her institutional record or health treatment. Without written permission officials can't share information, even with family members. However, DPSCS was never given the chance to comment on any of the specific allegations reported before this story ran. As a result, the portrayal of the inmate's situation presented in this story was inaccurate. WUSA viewers should also know a great deal of information about inmate mental health treatment, and specific MD regulation dictating how inmate segregation is managed, were made available. Yet none was used in the report. The result was a very inaccurate presentation of how Maryland's prison system approaches mental health."
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Written by Andrea McCarren