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Judge: DOC treatment of mentally ill unconstitutional

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A lack of basic treatment for mentally ill Indiana Department of Correction inmates held in isolation violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana discussed the ruling at a news conference on Wednesday. Legal Director Ken Falk said that while those with mental illness held in isolation accounted for only about six percent of the DOC population, inmates so confined represented about half the suicides at DOC in the past five years.

Falk said inmates held in isolated cells for 23 hours a day – sometimes longer – created “toxic” conditions in which the underlying symptoms of mental illness including depression and hallucinations were greatly increased.

“These people are going to be released,” Falk said. “The question you have to ask yourself as a Hoosier is, do you want someone released who is acutely psychotic.”

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana concluded that, in accord with Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910, 1928 (2011), “[a] prison that deprives prisoners of . . . adequate medical care . . . is incompatible with the concept of human dignity.”

“Mentally ill prisoners within the IDOC segregation units are not receiving minimally adequate mental health care in terms of scope, intensity, and duration and the IDOC has been deliberately indifferent,” Pratt wrote. “Based on the facts and law set forth in this Entry, therefore, it is the Court’s conclusion that the treatment of mentally ill prisoners housed in IDOC segregation units and the New Castle Psychiatric Unit, and the failure to provide adequate treatment for such prisoners, violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Plaintiffs have met their burden in that respect and are entitled to prevail.”

Pratt ordered a conference within 45 days “for the parties to discuss and establish the appropriate development of a remedy.”

There was no immediate indication whether DOC will appeal. “The Indiana Attorney General’s Office represents the Department of Correction and also works on behalf of crime victims and law enforcement to ensure the public is protected from dangerous offenders,” spokesman Bryan Corbin said in a statement. “As the state’s lawyer, we will review this opinion with our client DOC and decide at the appropriate time the next steps.”

More than 1,600 segregation beds are spread among 14 correctional facilities around the state, including the psychiatric unit at New Castle. According to the ACLU of Indiana, about 450 mentally ill prisoners are being held in isolation, but the ruling will affect hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates across the state.
 
The case is Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission on behalf of its clients and constituents v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, 1:08-CV-01317.

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