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Federal Judge Rules Mentally Ill Prisoners Should Not Be Subjected to Solitary Confinement

A federal judge ruled earlier this week the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) has violated the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners by not providing adequate mental health care. It had violated mentally ill prisoners by subjecting them to conditions that amounted to solitary confinement and only worsened their illness.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter in Indiana brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and a class of inmates with serious mental illnesses.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the US District Court of the Southern District of Indiana applied the following constitutional standard:

Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by … prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed.

The judge found “mentally ill prisoners prisoners within the IDOC segregation units”—in solitary confinement—were not receiving “minimally adequate mental health care” and the IDOC had been “deliberately indifferent” to prisoners in IDOC segregation units and the New Castle Psychiatric Unit.

She cited, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”

The judge concluded based on evidence presented that there were “three ways” segregation (solitary confinement) was harmful to prisoners with serious mental illness. First, “The lack of social interaction, such that the isolation itself creates problems. The second is that the isolation involves significant sensory deprivation. The third is the enforced idleness, permitting no activities or distractions. These factors can exacerbate the prisoners’ symptoms of serious mental illness. This condition is known as decompensation, an exacerbation or worsening of symptoms and illness.”

Decompensation, the judge added, can result as a prisoner experiences auditory or visual hallucinations, sleep disturbance, memory problems, anxiety, paranoia, depression, eating problems, or engaging in self-injury or suicide.” Symptoms can lead to behavior that poses a risk to the safety of staff or the prisoner himself. The symptoms can also induce paranoia and lead to prisoners refusing to leave their cell.

Evidence showed there were a “disproportionately high number of mentally ill prisoners within the segregation units within the IDOC.” [++]