The Death Of Timothy Souders

Scott Pelley On The Plight Of The Mentally Ill Behind Bars

This segment was originally broadcast on Feb. 11, 2007. It was updated on July 17, 2007.

You wouldn't imagine these days that a mental patient could be chained to a concrete slab by prison guards until he died of thirst, but that's how Timothy Souders died and he is not alone.

Souders suffered from manic depression. And like a lot of mental patients in this country, he got into trouble and ended up not in a hospital, but in jail. It was a shoplifting case and he paid with his life.

As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, no one would have been the wiser, but a medical investigator working for a federal judge caught wind of Souders' death and discovered his torturous end was recorded on videotape. The tapes, which are hard to watch, open a horrifying window on mental illness behind bars.

In 2006, Tim Souders was in solitary at the Southern Michigan Correctional Center. He was 21, serving three to five years. Though an investigation would show he needed urgent psychiatric care, Souders was chained down, hands, feet and waist, up to 17 hours at a time. By prison rules, all of it was recorded on a 24-hour surveillance camera and by the guards themselves.

The tape records a rapid descent: he started apparently healthy, but in four days Souders could barely walk. In the shower, he fell over. The guards brought him back in a wheelchair, but then chained him down again. On Aug. 6th, he was released from restraints and fell for the last time. Souders had died of dehydration and only the surveillance camera took notice.

His short life began in Adrian, Mich. Souders was a kid whose troubles didn't start until late in his teenage years. It was then, his mother, Theresa Vaughn, told 60 Minutes that he began acting strangely.

"It was January in the wintertime. And you know, he was running around outside with his clothes off, thinking he was a knight, fighting dragons. You know, you lose touch with reality," Vaughn remembers.

He was troubled by anxiety and depression, often in and out of the hospital. After one hospital stay, he was caught shoplifting two paintball guns. He grabbed a pocket knife, threatened employees, and then begged a cop to shoot him. Instead, he was stunned with a Taser.

No one was hurt.

"He had gotten to the point where his thinking wasn't straight, and he was suicidal. And he should've never went to jail," Vaughn says.

In jail, Souders tried to kill himself three times. He pled to resisting arrest and assault, for waving the pocketknife, and ended up in a Jackson County prison complex, with 5,000 inmates. It's a troubled place—prisoners filed suit there in the 1980's and since then, their welfare has been monitored by a federal judge.

When Souders arrived he was part of a national trend: there are 300,000 mental patients behind bars nationwide. That's because starting in the 1960's many mental hospitals have been closing. And as patients ended up in jail, prisons became the new asylums.

"They became de facto mental hospitals and the prisons are ill equipped to handle it," says Robert Walsh, a clinical psychologist working inside Michigan prisons for the past 25 years.

Walsh is an insider. He was a deputy warden and director of psychological services at the prison where Souders died. He retired six years before Souders arrived.

"Given what you see in the Souders videotape, what should have been happening?" Pelley asks.

"What should have been happening was right away, mental health staff should have been consulted and reported to the scene, and they should have intervened. Given that he wasn't assaultive against anybody," says Walsh.

But there was no mental health staff to consult—the psychiatrist was on a seven-week leave.

"Then he should have been replaced. It's too critical a situation," Walsh remarks.

What landed him in solitary was when Souders took a shower without permission. When he broke a stool and used his sink to flood his cell, the chains came out—what the prison calls "top of bed" restraints.