Prison is ‘Sheer Torture’ for People with Autism. A New Virginia Law Might Help.

Matthew Rushin

Rushin was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a hit-and-run.

By Dogwood Staff

December 29, 2020

Local, state officials often fail to identify autistic prisoners, leaving them to suffer behind bars.

VIRGINIA BEACH – Matthew Rushin just wanted to pick up some pastries one night in 2019. Little did he know it would change his life forever.

The 22-year-old went out to a Panera Bread in Virginia Beach on Jan. 4, but hit a moving vehicle in a parking lot and fled the scene. He then drove head-on into oncoming traffic, according to the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. He hit another vehicle in the process, seriously injuring two people.

The court sentenced Rushin, an African-American man with autism, to 50 years in prison. The judge suspended 40 years of the sentence, leaving him with 10 to serve.

The sentencing guidelines for this infraction call for between two to seven years. According to members of his family, the police tried to make an example out of Rushin.

“Immediately after the accident, he was not taken to a hospital even though he was disoriented and traumatized. Instead, the group of officers kept him on the scene for five hours and did not allow my husband, his father, to see or speak to him,” said Matthew’s mother, Laverne Rushin. “They wanted to use him as an example to show they were hard on crime and coreced him into saying he tried to commit suicide. They refuse to release the body cam footage to show there was manipulation.”

A Ten Year Sentence 

His unusually long sentence came as a result of a coerced statement, according to his mother. Matthew pled pled guilty to two counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run after five hours of questioning by officers.

A year later, Matthew got lucky. He was granted a conditional pardon. Governor Ralph Northam commuted his sentence to be more in line with the guidelines for a hit-and-run. As a result, he could be released within a few months into 2021 under a series of stringent restrictions. Additionally, the judge reduced Matthew’s sentence for good behavior. 

According to his mother, Matthew struggles with depression and bouts of temporary blindness due to a cyst on his pituitary gland. Additionally, reasonable accommodations for Matthew’s autism were also not made while he was in prison, his mother said.

The United States does not have an official count of autistic prisoners. 

Survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that in 2011 and 2012, about 20% of prisoners and 30% of jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability. These disabilities include behavioral disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, dementia, learning disorders, and Attention Deficit Disorder.

A 2012 study of 431 male prisoners in the U.S. found 4.4 percent of them were autistic. That’s double the prevalence of autism in the general population

Many more prisoners on the spectrum may go undiagnosed.

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Prison Environment ‘Sheer Torture’

People with autism sometimes are unable to pick up on unspoken social cues. In environments like prisons, that can be dangerous. 

“In prison, what happens is you have official prison rules, and then you have unofficial prison rules where if you tell on someone, you get in a lot of trouble,” says Brian Kelmar, co-founder and president of the Virginia nonprofit Legal Reform for the Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled (LRIDD). “This is why (autistic people) get in trouble in the prisons.”

Judy Harrison, communications director of LRIDD, says the experience of people with autism in prisons is particularly overwhelming. Harrison’s son, who is autistic, has also been incarcerated in Virginia. He came home in July of 2019, after three years behind bars. 

“The sensory overload was sheer torture,” she explained. “The lights, noise, confusion, withholding of his medication, and lack of sleep devastated him.” 

Advocating for People with Autism In Prison

Harrison’s group formed eight years ago by parents with children who have behavioral disabilities and have also been incarcerated. Their organization supported the passage of HB 659 in July, with the help of Del. Patrick A Hope (D-Arlington).

“The purpose of the bill is to better understand what are the best practices for dealing with people with intellectual disabilities in the prison system. We need to incorporate those best practices into our officer training to better serve this population,” Del. Hope said. 

The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously. It directs the Department of Corrections to create a workgroup to review current guidelines and develop screening and assessment recommendations that recognize and make accommodations for people suspected of having developmental disabilities. The workgroup is currently determining and developing these recommendations. 

People With Autism Benefit from Peer Intervention

According to experts in the field, existing intervention programs across the country are already improve the results of interactions between police and people with autism.

Harvey Rosenthal, chief executive officer of the New York Association of Psychiatric and Rehabilitation Services, Inc. (NYAPRS), says Oregon’s crisis response program CAHOOTS is the example that should be followed in every state.

The program allows peers with behavioral health disorders to be part of the crisis response team in order to ensure people with these conditions receive appropriate treatment and support.

Rosenthal says there are three prongs that make up the CAHOOTS program. The first is diversion, or efforts to try to keep individuals with behavioral health disorders out of the prison system. If diversion isn’t possible, they offer rehabilitation and re-entry services.

Rosenthal said the key to re-entry is to ensure the individual has access to appropriate health care.

“It is crucial that each incarcerated individual who needs it has immediate access to Medicaid when they are released. This is to ensure they can continue their medications and care uninterrupted. This is not always the case. Very often they must wait for a month or more,” Rosenthal said. 

No Accommodations for Rushin’s Autism

According to Kathy Hieatt, public information officer for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office (VSBO), Matthew Rushin was in their custody from January 5, 2019 to March 10, 2020.

Virginia Beach police arrested him on felony charges for attempted second degree murder, malicious wounding, and a hit-and-run. Currently, he is in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections. 

Despite his mother’s accusations of neglect, the VBSO says Matthew Rushin received treatment while in their custody.

“We offer extensive medical, mental health and behavioral health services to the inmates in our custody. These services are provided by our medical contractor, MEDIKO, and the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services Community Services Board,” Hieatt said. 

Laverne Rushin says her son did not receive any behavioral health services while in the custody of VBSO.

“He did not receive any ADA (Americans with DIsabilities Act) provisions, nor was he given any medical treatment. When his cyst started causing temporary blindness, they would not take him to a hospital to get an MRI.”

Sheriff’s Office Claims Success Without Offering Evidence

According to Hieatt, the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services estimates that 44% of its inmates suffer from a mental illness.

This is because people with autism tend to have more interactions with the police than other segments of the population. According to the Washington Post, in 2019 police shot and killed 1017 people. People with mental illnesses and behavioral health disorders made up 25% of those victims.

However, Hieatt says VBSO has made significant improvements to mental health treatment during the past 10 years. These improvements include tripling their mental health staff, ensuring those with these issues have access to treatment and medication, and creating specialized housing and programs for inmates with a mental illness. She said these improvements drastically reduced suicides and assaults by inmates on deputies and each other.

Unfortunately, Hieatt did not offer any data to support this claim. 

Jackie Fishman is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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