State agrees to improve care of mentally ill prisoners
By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
Posted Dec 20, 2011 @ 05:06 PM
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The lawsuit brought by the Disability Law Center against the Department of Correction in March 2007 alleged cruel and unusual punishment against inmates with mental illness stemming from the practice of segregating problem prisoners in isolation units.
Filed just after Gov. Deval Patrick came into office and naming many Romney-era prison officials, the lawsuit contended that the conditions imposed by segregated confinement in Bay State prisons “exceed the limit of human endurance” for prisoners with severe mental illness.
Segregation, used as a punishment for prisoners who have violated prison rules, can in some cases include isolation and sensory deprivation, forcing prisoners to spend up to 23 hours a day in solid, concrete cells with only a narrow slot in the door through which meals are delivered, according to court documents reviewed by the News Service.
Suicides in Massachusetts’ medium and maximum security prisons have been a persistent problem, with the suicide rate in Department of Correction facilities more than double the national average between 2007 and early 2011, according to department documents.
Between November 2004 and March 2007, 11 state inmates committed suicide, including four in the 10 weeks leading up the filing of the lawsuit. At least seven suffered from mental illness. Since then, 18 inmates committed suicide between 2007 and 2010, including a spike of eight suicides recorded in 2010, according to DOC statistics.
According to the lawsuit, mental illness was widespread in the Massachusetts prison system at the time the lawsuit was filed. The Disability Law Center estimated that approximately 25 percent of all prisoners were receiving treatment for some type of mental disorder.
The settlement agreement between the Disability Law Center and the Department of Correction was filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 12 and is awaiting court approval.
In a disclosure statement to Massachusetts bondholders this week, the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the state Treasury confirmed a settlement agreement had been entered into this month and estimated it could cost $5.6 million per year to hire additional staff to meet the conditions of the agreement.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Correction declined to comment on the settlement because it still has not been approved by the courts.
Negotiations for a settlement dragged for years, according to court filings, breaking off at one point in November 2009 “because of disagreements that arose in the context of the Commonwealth’s financial crisis at the time,” according to a joint memo from attorneys on both sides of the case.
In the intervening time, the Department of Correction undertook several initiatives to serve inmates with severe mental illness in segregation, including the implementation of a mental health classification system, a policy to exclude inmates with severe mental illness from long-term segregation and the design and operation of two maximum security mental health treatment units as alternatives to segregation.
Settlement negotiations resumed in February as a result of these actions by the DOC, leading to tentative agreement this month that would limit the amount of time mentally ill prisoners could be held in segregation and requiring additional screening, mental health checks and training for prison employees.
Though the full settlement remains under court seal, the joint memorandum of support filed in U.S. District Court and obtained by the News Service spelled out some of the broad terms of the deal.
The Department of Correction would be required to maintain the number of beds in secure treatment units and to “strictly regulate” the amount of time that prisoners with severe mental illness can be housed in other segregation units and provide expanded mental health services and out-of-cell time.
Except in special circumstances, inmates with severe mental illness may not be confined in department disciplinary units or in special management units for more than 30 days. In cases where mentally ill prisoners are awaiting placement in a treatment unit but cannot be housed safely with the general prison population, those inmates must be provided additional mental health services, out-of-cell activities and other privileges.
The lawsuit alleged that segregated confinement also violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Alan Kerzin, executive director of the Disability Law Center, also declined to discuss specifics of the settlement until they were finalized. “We’re pleased we have reached a tentative settlement,” Kerzin said.