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Ending 'deliberate indifference' to mental health

Friday, January 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

Isolation of inmates leds to deterioration in their condition.

There is still a long way to go, but Fort Wayne and Allen County have made great strides in dealing with the problems that arise when mental health issues and the criminal justice system intersect. It is still probably true, as someone once remarked, that the Allen County Jail is the largest mental institution we have, but at least there is an attempt to understand that criminals with mental illness often behave badly because of faulty brain chemistry, not evil intent.

Not so the state, which pays lip service to giving mentally ill inmates treatment but too often just locks them up and forgets about them. Now things may start to change with a ruling against the state by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The ruling came in a suit by the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and a group of inmates.

The Indiana Department of Corrections, the judge ruled, is “deliberately indifferent” about its treatment of mentally ill prisoners held in segregation units at state prisons and the New Castle Psychiatric Unit. That failure to provide adequate care for those prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, she wrote in the ruling. Mentally ill prisoners are not receiving “minimally adequate mental health care in terms of scope, intensity and duration.”

It’s unclear how much effect this ruling will have, so it would be premature to label it a major victory for the mentally ill. The ruling says the plaintiffs are entitled to mental health care, but there will be “further proceedings” between the court and the state to determine exactly what that will involve. But it’s one small step in the long process of recognizing that inmates’ mental health is as important as their physical health.

This will of course improve things for prisoners – 11 mentally ill inmates committed suicide while in the segregation units from 2007 through July 2011. Many others deteriorate as the isolation of up to 23 hours a day accelerates their conditions.

It’s important to the rest of us, too. Most of the inmates with mental illness will be released eventually. It’s far better for them to be treated while they’re incarcerated instead of letting their problems mount until they’re released back into society.

This isn’t just an Indiana problem; it’s being faced in other states as the number of mentally ill inmates increases and the easy solution of segregating them in isolation grows in popularity. Indiana has a chance to get ahead of the curve on this issue, and it should jump at the chance.