Just before the new year began a Federal District Court Judge in Indianapolis handed down a decision with important implications for prisoners with mental illness in Indiana and across the country. Stating that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled that the treatment for mentally ill individuals in Indiana’s state prisons violated their Constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

As reported by the Indianapolis Star:

Weeks after a suicidal inmate at New Castle Correctional Facility told a prison doctor his behavior was the result of being placed in a segregation unit, the Indiana Department of Correction put the inmate back in an isolation cell.

Days later, he was dead — one of at least 11 mentally ill inmates who committed suicide while in IDOC segregation units from 2007 through July 2011.

Now, state officials and advocates are scrambling for solutions after a federal court found the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in segregation units at Indiana prisons violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued the decision Monday in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and a group of inmates.

Pratt found “mentally ill prisoners within the IDOC segregation units are not receiving adequate mental health care in terms of scope, intensity, and duration.”

The judge also noted IDOC was aware of concerns about its treatment of mentally ill prisoners and “has been deliberately indifferent.”

Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, hailed the ruling as a win not only for mentally ill inmates, but for all Hoosiers.

The majority of inmates with mental illness, Falk explained, eventually will be released, and it is better for everyone if their problems are addressed before they re-enter society. Treatment also can help reduce recidivism, saving tax dollars.

“The ACLU of Indiana is happy the court has entered this decision that will force the Indiana Department of Correction to provide minimally adequate treatment to prisoners who will one day rejoin society,” Falk said.

The judge’s order does not prescribe specific changes needed at IDOC. Instead, Pratt said further court proceedings will be conducted “as to the relief to which the plaintiffs are entitled.” In general, the order says, that means at least basic mental health care…

The piece goes on to discuss the “colliding trends” that have turned supermax prisons and solitary confinement units into the new warehouses for people with untreated mental illness.

Indiana is not alone in facing the growing challenge of dealing with mentally ill inmates, said Dr. Robert L. Trestman, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and nursing at the University of Connecticut and executive director of Correctional Managed Health Care, which provides medical and mental health care to inmates in Connecticut prisons.

“This is a national issue,” Trestman explained, “that has come about because of two different trends that have collided.”

He cited a dramatic increase in the number of inmates with severe mental illness in the past 20 years and the growing use of prisoner segregation — a sort of “prison within a prison” — to manage difficult prisoners.

“Each one is a problem in its own right,” he said, “but when they overlap you have a profound problem.”

Trestman said segregation initially was intended to punish inmates who committed violent crimes while in prison, and to protect other prisoners and staff. But in many instances, the bar has been lowered to include inmates who are uncooperative or violate rules, filling segregation units with mentally ill prisoners whose conditions often deteriorate with isolation…

Click here to read the full article, which acknowledges both the challenges of providing adequate care to people with mental illness in prison, and the inhumane consequences of failing to do so. Click here to read Judge Pratt’s decision.

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