Federal lawsuit targets confinement of mentally ill inmates

DOVER — Legal advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit against Delaware’s prison commissioner Thursday, alleging that the Department of Correction is unconstitutionally subjecting mentally ill prisoners to solitary confinement without proper evaluation, monitoring and treatment.

In the complaint, the American Civil Liberties Union and Community Legal Aid Society argue that solitary confinement can exacerbate symptoms of mentally ill inmates’ disorders and violates their constitutional rights, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.

“These circumstances deprive prisoners of any meaningful mental health treatment, because they are deprived of reasonably frequent care and because they are denied the opportunity to engage in normal human interaction, such as working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, or attending religious services, which promote mental health and wellbeing,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, roughly a third of the approximately 300 inmates in secure housing at the maximum security prison in Smyrna are on DOC’s mental health roster, and more than 60 are identified as having a serious mental illness.

Prison officials say they have worked with the ACLU and CLASI for several months to address issues involving inmates with serious mental illness and are disappointed by the filing of the lawsuit.

“We believe that continuing the constructive engagement among all interested parties that is resulting in tangible reform is the best way forward, instead of protracted litigation that would divert limited state funds from programs and treatment to attorneys and legal fees,” DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe said in a statement.

The plaintiffs argue that Coupe has had the ability to correct the problems and has failed to do so.

“Defendant has been made aware of and is deliberately indifferent to the deprivations suffered by prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs claim that solitary confinement has serious negative effects on inmates with serious mental illness, ranging from insomnia and anxiety to rage, depression and suicidal behavior. Inmates who act out often are punished with more time in solitary confinement for disciplinary violations, according to the complaint. Prisoners also often refuse to admit that they need help, fearing placement in a “naked room,” an isolation cell that has only a commode and a mattress on the floor, and where they are given only a smock to cover themselves, the plaintiffs say.

Meanwhile, cells in a Special Needs Unit for mentally ill inmates deemed incapable of remaining with others in maximum security remain vacant, the complaint states.

DOC officials say that while public safety and prison security are top priorities, they share concerns about the effects of restrictive housing on inmates and their re-entry to society. Officials note that they proposed a resolution passed by state lawmakers last month calling for a study of restrictive housing practices amid growing concern about the effects of solitary confinement on mental health and re-entry.

Also last month, prison officials created a 50-bed Secured Transition Unit in which inmates with mental illness are allowed an hour a day for recreation and showers, compared to the three one-hour periods allowed each week for other prisoners in solitary confinement. Inmates in the STU also can participate in weekly group therapy sessions and monthly individual therapy, but the complaint suggests that those considerations are inadequate.

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