ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Plush Dozier is in solitary confinement in Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in New York. The 23-year-old Rochester man has yet to be convicted of a crime.
Police arrested him last June, suspecting that he set a fire that destroyed a home in Batavia and injured his on-and-off girlfriend. He was booked into the Genesee County Jail, where officers quickly realized they could not manage Dozier’s severe mental illness and associated behavior.
Dozier has been hospitalized intermittently since he was 5, diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. He experiences paranoia and delusions. He hears voices and hallucinates that things are crawling on his skin. If not properly medicated, he can be aggressive.
When asked whether the Genesee County Jail has a full- or part-time mental health professional, Jail Superintendent William Zipfel laughed. The jail was built in the 1900s and is frequently over capacity. The county sends a mental health practitioner once a week or so, Zipfel said.
Zipfel requested that Dozier be relocated to a facility that could meet his needs. The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision sent Dozier to Attica, a maximum-security prison. That was eight months ago.
“Attica Correctional Facility is an Office of Mental Health Level 1 facility, which offers the highest level of mental health care,” the department said in a statement.
Dozier’s family, his attorney, local prison reform activists and Attica prisoners decry his treatment as unjust, inhumane and dangerous. Fellow inmates have sent notarized letters saying Dozier is being abused by staff and other prisoners. His sister Shonday Williams says her brother is suicidal and she fears for his life.
Dozier’s confinement at Attica is especially appalling to opponents of New York’s long-term use of solitary confinement, which the United Nations has deemed torture.
“Solitary confinement is torture for all people,” said Scott Paltrowitz, a #HaltSolitary Campaign member and supporter of legislation to end long-term solitary confinement in New York. “For people who have pre-existing mental health needs, it causes devastating harm. To hold someone who is presumed innocent, and who has serious mental health needs, in solitary for months at Attica, a prison notorious for abuse, is outrageous. It is also emblematic of the barbaric practices systemwide.”
It starts at a house fire in Batavia
On June 12, 2018, Plush Dozier called his sister asking for a ride to Batavia so that he could go see his on-and-off girlfriend, Heather Buchin. He said that he wanted to bring food to her four children. Suspecting trouble, his sister refused to drive him and Dozier took a Greyhound bus.
The next morning, Shonday Williams saw on the news that her brother had been arrested and accused of setting Buchin’s house on fire. Dozier now claims that Buchin was drunk and set the fire. He approached police outside the smoldering house and took the blame because – he later claimed – he didn’t want Buchin to lose custody of her children. He was arrested and denied bail due to the severity of the charges, which include arson and attempted murder.
Privacy laws prevent Genesee County Jail from discussing what, if any, mental health treatment Dozier received while incarcerated there. Williams said that her brother wasn’t given any medication and “started freaking out.”
He had altercations with other inmates and corrections officers, Genesee County Jail reports show. He cut his wrists and tried to hang himself. On Aug. 20, he was accused of damaging a sheriff’s vehicle by repeatedly kicking the car door. He allegedly tried to grab a deputy’s gun, with the deputy reporting that Dozier said “that he would get my gun and kill all of us.”
Dozier’s family became very concerned when their visits with Dozier at the Genesee County Jail were repeatedly canceled. Williams said she was eventually told that her brother had been had been transferred to Attica.
The first time she saw him in the visiting room at the maximum-security prison, Williams was horrified. “He was spaced out of his mind,” she said.”He was physically there but mentally gone.”
More: ‘Toxic stress’ on kids can harm their lifelong learning, mental and physical health
Dozier has long history of illness
When Dozier was about 7, his mother, Lisa, suffered a mental breakdown and he ended up in foster care. She regained custody, only to lose it again when she couldn’t manage Dozier’s illness. He was never violent toward her, she said, but he would “yell and scream and tear up the house.”
Dozier went into treatment at Hillside Family of Agencies. His Hillside discharge summary said that he loved basketball and had a great sense of humor, but needed medication and mental health treatment to address his anger, aggression, and paranoia.
Little has changed. One of the mental health professionals who evaluated Dozier to determine his competency to stand trial said his symptoms make it difficult to thrive in a prison setting.
“It is quite possible that his altercations with other inmates and COs are motivated by his underlying paranoia,” Dr. Virginia Wohltmann wrote. “It is imperative therefore that he be continued on antipsychotic medication.”
Dozier’s sister says she does not know what medication he is or isn’t being given at Attica. She worries that he isn’t getting anything and that he will make good on his frequent threats of suicide. “He says that he will kill himself before he lets them kill him.”
An “inmate misbehavior report” from Attica dated Aug.31 said that Dozier was escorted to the facility hospital after self-inflicting cuts to his left arm. The report said that he shouted at the staff and threatened to beat and kill them. He is accused of lunging out of his chair at a corrections officer, “at which point force became necessary,” the report said.
His sister says she frequently sees bruises and other evidence of harm on her brother. His mother said she can barely sleep due to worry. “Every the phone rings, I panic,” Lisa Williams said. “My son may be raped or killed in this prison and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Several of Attica’s approximately 2,000 inmates have written letters on behalf of Dozier. Among them is Johnnie Hardwick, who sent a notarized letter on Nov. 8 saying that Dozier was being abused by corrections officers and inmates. “Mr. Dozier should not be held in a maximum security state prison. He is constantly being harassed by officers and inmates.”
Inmate Brandon Hemingway wrote simply, “He’s not supposed to be in this jail.”
More: FDA approves pill that can be tracked by patients and doctors when swallowed
How he ended up in solitary
Dozier was placed in solitary confinement after being accused of an “unhygenic act” on Sept. 28. A report states that he used a styrofoam cup to propel an unknown yellow liquid into the face of a corrections officer. He wrote to his sister that the liquid was toothpaste and water, not urine. He said he threw it because he was tired of corrections officers beating him for no reason. He has been in solitary confinement ever since.
The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said Dozier’s placement was “due to repeated violations and misconduct, including an unhygienic act and violence toward staff. … As with all individuals in the Department’s care and custody, DOCCS continues to assess health and wellness needs, as well as provide the appropriate services to ensure safe confinement within the facility.”
Tyrell Muhammad, a founding member of Campaign Against Isolation Confinement, says that Dozier should be sent to a mental health facility. “It’s preposterous,” he said. “He needs competent mental health professionals to serve him and he is not going to get that in a state prison.”
Courts have denied all legal attempts made to have him transferred or released on bail, said his attorney Thomas Burns. “There really is no practical remedy left.”
Zipfel, the Genesee jail supervisor, said he had no choice but to request Dozier’s removal, for Dozier’s safety and for the safety of his jail staff. Zipfel has worked in the jail for 37 years and said there has been a significant increase in the number of inmates with mental health problems. The increase coincided with the closure of state psychiatric facilities.
The closures were intended to improve care for mentally ill people by shifting their treatment to less restrictive settings. Today the largest providers of mental health care in the country are jails in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In 2014, The New York Times reported that Rikers Island was housing about as many people with serious mental illnesses as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York state combined.
Smaller jails also feel the huge and inappropriate burden of providing de facto mental heath care, said Zipfel. “We have become something of a dumping ground.”
Still months to go before a trial
Genesee County Court Judge Charles Zambito is currently weighing evidence as to whether Dozier is mentally competent to stand trial.
On Feb. 28, clinical psychologist William Mitchell testified that he is competent. On the stand he stressed that this assessment was based on a brief meeting, lasting about one hour, rather than a general assessment of Dozier’s mental health.
He testified that Dozier’s condition could easily deteriorate. “I think he has a significant mental illness,” he testified. “I think he is more likely than not to become incompetent in the future.”
Mitchell said that Dozier clearly needs mental health treatment, “but a lot of people in state prison need mental health treatment.”
Dozier’s next court appearance is scheduled for April 12, when another mental health professional will testify as to whether he is competent to stand trial. Till then, family visits him at Attica on Saturdays.
Williams says that she has tried to seek additional legal counsel, but finds it difficult to make people believe her brother is being held, pretrial, at Attica. “I always get told, ‘That’s not possible,'” she said. “It’s very possible.”
Dozier’s attorney says that under the best circumstances, it will take at least six months for the the criminal charges against him to be resolved. “If he is acquitted, then we have an innocent human being being detained at Attica,” Burns said. “It is horrific, just the thought.”