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Criminalizing the sick

Durango man’s isolation in jail exacerbated his mental illness

It can be like throwing gas on a fire.

For people in the judicial court system, being segregated for months in a cell for 22 or 23 hours a day can cause an average person with no history of mental illness to feel unhinged. For some people with a mental illness, it can be a nightmare.

Miles Bufano has lived that nightmare for the last seven months in La Plata County Detention Center.

“I feel suicidal every day,” Bufano said Monday in an interview at the jail.

Bufano, 22, was described in a psychological evaluation last year as having a borderline IQ – meaning in the range of 70-84 – schizoid personality disorder and obsessive compulsive personality features. He has a long history of cutting himself, past suicide attempts and alcohol abuse.

Bufano was arrested about a year ago on suspicion of causing harm to several family members. Some of the original charges were dropped. He currently is charged with assaulting his girlfriend, physically harassing his cousin, false imprisonment, negligent bodily injury to his grandmother, bond violations and resisting arrest. The bond violations and the injury to an at-risk adult are Class 6 felonies, the least serious class of felony. He has not gone to trial on any charges.

Bufano’s father, Mark Bufano Sr., finally got his son free Tuesday on a personal recognizance bond after months of calling attention to his son’s mental illness, lack of education and low IQ.

During his stay in jail, Miles Bufano was in maximum protective custody. He did not have a cellmate. He got one hour a day outside his cell in the cell block and one hour a day of recreation in a larger room in the building with a concrete floor that has windows to let in fresh air in good weather. He visited with his father through video monitors at the jail.

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard said Bufano was not in solitary confinement. Sheriff’s officials said he had other men in his cell block to talk with, and staff checked on inmates regularly. He also received medication in jail. Schirard said he can’t release specifics, but Bufano has a long history of mental illness that is not the fault of detention staff.

“This guy is tagged so that other prisoners might want to physically attack him,” Schirard said. “What would happen if we allowed that to happen?”

Civil-rights organizations said there is no clear definition of solitary confinement. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a briefing paper that protective custody “involves substantial social isolation.”

But psychiatrist Terry Kupers said he doesn’t see much difference between the two.

“The idea of protective custody is you take someone who needs protection, (but) they’re entitled to a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of activities and programs,” said Kupers, who also is a professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. “What happens is (the detention facilities) don’t have the programs. Protection requires ... a separate place for them to be but without losing any of their privileges and programs, and the jails don’t have that, so they put them in solitary confinement, and it’s not correct.”

Isolation causes the symptoms of someone with mental illness to magnify. People who are prone to a mental breakdown will have one in solitary, either psychotic or suicidal, Kupers said.

“I don’t think you can justify it under any penological interest that the jail may have,” said Mark Ivandick, managing attorney for the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People, a nonprofit in Denver with federal authority to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.

Bufano said his more than seven-month stay in the detention facility pending trial was “hell.”

In the jailhouse interview Monday, he said he felt isolated, making the schizophrenia worse. He suffered audio and visual hallucinations in his cell. He said his cell-block mates are sex offenders, and he didn’t like talking to them.

His trial was delayed late last year after he was judged incompetent to assist his lawyer in his defense, and he was sent to Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo for about 40 days.

“That’s what’s happening to our mentally ill,” Mark Bufano Sr. said. “They get released from the state hospital, they sit in solitary confinement, they lose it there, and when it’s time for them to go to court, they’re no longer competent.”

However, an updated psychological evaluation indicates Miles Bufano is more competent now than he was last year, his public defender Zac Brown said at a court hearing last week. Brown declined to comment for this story.

Bufano’s experience is not unusual.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill last week banning long-term solitary confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness.

Kupers said depriving an inmate of social contact and daily activities makes that person less human and brings on anxiety, panic and delusional thoughts. Anger mounts, and despair builds.

“Basically, everybody who our society is not providing services, all the disadvantaged people who our society ignores, eventually gets locked up in prison, and they don’t do well,” he said. “Prison itself is a very harsh place.”

Bufano has been released on bail twice before, but he ended up back in jail for violating the conditions of his bail by drinking alcohol. However, Mark Bufano Sr. said he has a detailed plan of action for his son this time that requires him to do certain things such as attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, study for a GED certificate and participate in therapy sessions.

The father voiced a little apprehension about dealing with the son he hasn’t been close enough to physically touch in months, who’s been locked down nearly 24 hours a day.

“I’m hoping everything goes OK for him,” he said.


An earlier version of this story omitted that Miles Bufano is also charged with physically harassing his cousin.

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