Unconstitutional Mental Health Treatment of State Prisoners with Mental Illness
Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health, et al.
No. 02-CV-4002 (SDNY 2002)
After five years of litigation and two weeks of trial, the New York State Department of Correctional Services and Office of Mental Health agreed to a settlement which establishes major improvements in psychiatric treatment for New York State prisoners with mental illness. The settlement agreement was approved by Judge Lynch of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on April 27, 2007.
In 2002, Disability Advocates, the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and Davis Polk & Wardwell filed Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health and Department of Correctional Services, et al., 02 Civ. 4002 (S.D.N.Y.). The lawsuit alleged that prisoners with mental illness throughout New York did not get adequate mental health treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The lack of treatment resulted in many prisoners with mental illness being punished with lengthy sentences of solitary confinement “Special Housing Units” (SHU) or keeplock, where prisoners are confined for twenty-three hours each day, have severe restrictions on property and visitation, and no access to out of cell programming. Suffering from the isolation and idleness, prisoners with mental illness often experienced severe psychiatric deterioration in these units, including acts of self-mutilation and even suicide. At a court conference held on April 27, 2007, Judge Lynch stated that SHU confinement is “almost guaranteed to worsen the mental condition of just about anyone but certainly those with vulnerable psyches.”
The settlement will improve mental health care for all prisoners with serious mental illness throughout the New York State prison system, including all the SHU and keeplock units. Unlike similar cases in other states, relief for prisoners with mental illness is not limited to “supermax” prisons. The settlement creates new mental health treatment programs for prisoners with serious mental illness who have SHU and keeplock sentences, and requires the state to provide at least two hours a day of out of cell treatment and programming to all prisoners with serious mental illness remaining in SHU. It requires reviews of disciplinary sentences for inmates with serious mental illness to reduce their sentences and divert them from SHU. It also improves mental health assessments for prisoners when they first arrive in state custody, and increases the numbers of residential mental health treatment beds. Improved screening and treatment is expected to enable more inmates with mental illness avoid SHU and keeplock sentences.
We are now monitoring the implementation of the settlement.
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