July 1st, 2012

Policy changes affect isolation for prisoners with mental illness

On March 12, 2012, after a five-year legal battle, the Disability Law Center, Inc. (DLC) in Massachusetts earned a victory for inmates with mental illness who face long-term isolation. Assertions that segregation violates the constitutional rights of prisoners with mental illness as well as a spate of suicides while in segregated cells – 11 within a 28-month

period – prompted the lawsuit. Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf delivered the settlement in the case; his decision prompts the creation of a mental health classification system as well as other positive changes.

According to Rick Glassman, litigation director at the DLC, the settlement mandates policy that discourages or prohibits long-term segregation for prisoners with mental illness. Additionally, alternative therapeutic treatment units with special programs, e.g., Secure Treatment Program (STP), will be created. Nineteen beds at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center and 10 at MCI Cedar Junction will be used in lieu of isolation. He adds that prison personnel will be required to screen those with serious mental illness who might be placed in isolation and to monitor prisoners who are in isolation for signs of deterioration. Department of Corrections staff will be required to undergo special training and DLC will be allowed to monitor these requirements for between three to five years, “including access of DLC’s expert to segregation units during tours and access to documents which must be provided to DLC to help in monitoring compliance,” Glassman says.

Glassman points out that Craig Haney, Ph.D, J.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and “the leading thinker and researcher in the country  within the field of psychology on the prolonged psychological effects of isolation,” was one of the expert witnesses in the case.

In June 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended halting long-term isolation based on Haney’s study of 100 inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax facility, which found that this form of punishment diminishes the ability to initiate nearly any type of behavior, instead producing a pseudo-catatonic state.

A U.N. General Assembly Report from August 2011 arrived at similar conclusions, citing prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement leading to severe mental and physical pain in people with mental disabilities as tantamount to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture.” The report asserts that lengthy isolation runs contrary to the basic goals of the penitentiary system, i.e., to rehabilitate and prepare individuals for re-entry into society.

In addition to the DLC, the Center for Public Representation, Prisoners Legal Services and the private law firms of Bingham McCutcheon and Nelson Mullins filed the original lawsuit.

By Phyllis Hanlon

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