U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt found more than a year ago that the prison agency's treatment of its nearly 6,000 mentally ill inmates was inadequate and ordered it to do more. Pratt ruled that by simply locking mentally ill prisoners up in their cells without adequate treatment, the state system was violating the inmates' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
The 2008 class-action lawsuit said inmates were routinely placed in isolation and they and their mental health caretakers often had to yell at each other through solid cell doors instead of meeting face to face.
David Fathi, who heads the national ACLU Prison Project, said Tuesday that mentally ill inmates across the U.S. are routinely held in solitary confinement for days or years and often mutilate or kill themselves. In 2005, an inmate at Indiana's Wabash Correctional Facility committed suicide by setting himself on fire in his cell.
“The Indiana case is definitely part of a trend,” Fathi said. “Prisons and jails have become the asylums of last resort, and judges are insisting they do a better job of caring for the mentally ill.”
The ACLU has handled similar cases in Massachusetts, South Carolina, Arizona and Mississippi, Fathi said. He cited government figures showing that as many as one-third the nation's prison inmates are believed to have a mental illness.
The civil rights group also represents the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission in its suit against the DOC.
Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana's legal director, said Tuesday the Pendleton unit now appears to be “state of the art” and puts Indiana ahead of other states in its treatment of mentally ill inmates.
Advocates reported a lack of progress to the court last fall, but prison officials say they've made improvements since then, providing special training to about 300 prison staff and is in the process of starting up special units at prisons in Pendleton, New Castle, Wabash Valley and the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis.
The new mental health unit at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, about 25 miles northeast of Indianapolis, went into operation early last month and currently houses five offenders. Eventually, officials plan for the unit to house 264 inmates, the Department of Correction said.
Advocates say the number of mentally ill people in prison has risen over the years as states have cut budgets for treatment.