SNAPSHOT: Prisons and Mental Illness


Karl Taylor died in prison in 2015 after an altercation with guards that began when he wouldn’t clean his filthy cell. Imprisoned for rape, he’d been diagnosed with delusional disorder and paranoid personality disorder. He spent nearly 10 years in solitary confinement.

Tom Robbins, investigative journalist in residence at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, examined the case for an investigation into mental illness and prisons published by The Atlantic.

An official report said Taylor punched the officer who ordered the cleanup, grabbed his baton, and died of a heart attack when guards responded to the melee. Inmate witnesses said the officer hit Taylor first, and that other guards beat him badly. The district attorney said the officers acted in self-defense.

Taylor’s sister has sued, saying recommendations to hospitalize Taylor in a prison psychiatric unit were ignored. A pathologist retained by her lawyer said Taylor died of injuries from the altercation.

Close up of a prison cell's bars

The officer who ordered Taylor to clean his cell was involved in a dozen “use of force” incidents, all involving mentally or physically disabled inmates, Robbins said. That officer and another were injured in the melee; they retired, and have countersued.

One out of every five inmates in New York has been diagnosed with mental illness — nearly 10,000 prisoners, Robbins said. Since Taylor’s death, state prisons have expanded mental health units, and guards may now use pepper spray instead of physical force.

“This fatal collision between the keepers and the kept involved one of the many people with a tortured mind who wash up on the shores of America’s prisons,” Robbins wrote. “But for a guard’s stubborn insistence that even a mentally ill inmate must clean his cell, this was an avoidable tragedy.”