INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana has been "deliberately indifferent" to the plight of mentally ill inmates in its state prisons, simply locking them up without providing adequate treatment, a federal judge has ruled.
The conditions violate mentally ill prisoners' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said.
"Being placed in segregation when you are severely mentally ill ... is torture," Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said at a news conference Wednesday.
About a quarter of the inmates in the Indiana Department of Correction are mentally ill, but the state's two mental health units have room for only about 250 patients. Many others are simply locked alone in their cells, which can make them worse, according to the order issued late on New Year's Eve. A psychiatrist who visited the prison system's main psychiatric unit at New Castle said some of the patients there were "frankly psychotic," yet received little care and were inappropriately taken off medications.
"The Court finds that 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.
Pratt did not mandate a remedy in her ruling Monday. Lawyers for both sides are supposed to meet within 45 days to discuss how to correct the problem.
The Department of Correction referred comment to the Indiana attorney general's office, which represented the state. A spokesman for that office, Bryan Corbin, said Wednesday that the agency will review the ruling with the Department of Correction and determine the next steps.
Mental health care, like other medical care, is provided by a private contractor called Corizon. The company said in a statement that it is "fully supportive" of the Indiana Department of Correction as the agency reviews the court's ruling.
"We will continue to provide healthcare services in accordance with our contract with the IDOC in its current form or other as may be amended," Corizon's statement said.
The ACLU represented the state Protection and Advocacy Services Commission in the class action lawsuit that was filed in 2008 on behalf of the more than 5,800 mentally ill inmates in Indiana prisons. The commission advocates for the rights of the disabled.
Commission attorney David Smith said in an email that the agency "strongly agrees with the ruling."
A survey by the corrections agency in 2010 found that 22 percent of the 26,700 inmates in state prisons were diagnosed mentally ill, a figure that is in line with national estimates by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Advocates say the number of mentally ill people in prison has risen over the years as states have cut budgets for treatment.
"If you have people on the outside who are not getting adequate treatment and they engage in criminal behavior, they'll end up in the DOC," ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk said at a news conference Wednesday.
Josh Sprunger, executive director for the Indiana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the state corrections agency has improved its treatment of mentally ill inmates in the last decade, but more resources are needed to get people into treatment in the first place.
"They don't belong in DOC," he said. "We could really save the state a lot of resources if we could get people in recovery before charges are even filed."
Pratt found that mental health treatment in the prison system "is principally limited to issuance of medication, prisoner conversations with the mental health staff, and mental health staff's response to incidents of actual and attempted self-harm."
"The pervasive function of mental health staff within the IDOC has become a mixture of responding to crises and responding to prisoner requests to be seen," she added in her 37-page opinion issued in federal court in Indianapolis more than a year after a July 2011 bench trial.
Pratt noted one instance in which a prisoner committed suicide about a week after he missed two mental health appointments — at least one because no guards were available to escort him.