Thursday, March 8, 2007
Lawsuit seeks to end segregation of mentally ill prisoners
By Jonathan Saltzman and Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff
An advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit today alleging that the state Department of Correction's segregation of mentally ill prisoners in isolated cells for 23 hours a day has led to numerous prisoner suicides and self-mutilations.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston by attorneys for the Disability Law Center, seeks to end the practice, which advocates say violates the constitutional rights of several hundred mentally ill inmates in the state prison system, which has a population of about 11,000.
The lawsuit was filed after an intensive yearlong review in which advocates visited inmates at Susan-Baranowski Correctional Facility and MCI-Cedar Junction, toured the units, and reviewed records.
"We had worst fears confirmed," said Stanley J. Eichner, executive director of the Disability Law Center. "The system is broken. These men are being subjected to intolerable conditions which cause them to gravely harm themselves, too often fatally."
Leslie Walker, the executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services and an attorney on the case, said the plaintiffs want the Department of Correction to exclude mentally ill inmates from segregation units and provide access to mental health treatment that is currently available. Similar lawsuits in other states have spurred the changes the plaintiffs are seeking, including California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Connecticut, and New Mexico.
The lawsuit focuses on 18 individual inmates who either harmed or killed themselves. The lawyers today displayed three photos of one inmate whose arms, torso, and neck bore horrific red scars from self-mutilation advocates say was spurred by his segregation.
On Feb. 21, the state Department of Correction announced it would comply completely with 29 recommendations in an independent study that found serious problems with how prisons handle suicidal inmates. The study, however, did not recommend that the state end its practice of segregating mentally ill inmates. Lawyers today alleged that the study was a halfhearted effort by the state spurred in part by questions asked by advocates for the Disability Law Center.
The study, commissioned by the department, found that staff lacked sufficient suicide-prevention training and did not check frequently enough on some inmates at risk of killing themselves. The report also found that some cells used to house despondent inmates had not been stripped of features the men could use to harm themselves and that prisoners under suicide watch become even more isolated because they are denied visitors, showers, phone calls, and time outside their cells.
The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit research center based in Baltimore, was asked to perform the study after state prisons saw a spike in suicides in 2005 and 2006. Ten inmates have killed themselves in state prisons in the past two years, and a suicide attempt left a prisoner brain dead. Of the 11 inmates, five had been on suicide watch, and six had documented mental health issues. The study found that prison policies exacerbated some of the problems
Posted by the Boston Globe City & Region Desk at 12:02 PM
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