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Lawsuit Challenges Prolonged Detention of Mentally Ill

The mentally ill may wait years in jail for court-ordered competency restoration treatment. Credit: TryJimmy/
The mentally ill may wait years in jail for court-ordered competency restoration treatment. Credit: TryJimmy/
October 26, 2015

PHILADELPHIA - The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of mentally-ill prisoners held in Pennsylvania jails while awaiting treatment.

Criminal courts often order mentally ill criminal defendants who cannot understand the proceedings to undergo treatment to restore their competence.

According to Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, they may be waiting for a year or more before that happens.

"In the meantime they're just languishing in the county jail where they're not getting mental-health treatment and very often they're put into solitary confinement because they've acted out due to their illness," says Walczak.

Federal courts have ruled that delays of more than seven days between a court's commitment order and hospitalization are unconstitutional.

Those who cannot be restored to competence to stand trail must be released, or civilly committed if a danger to themselves or others. As Walczak points out, a long delay in transfer to a hospital often makes their mental condition worse.

"After a few months in prison or jail, they completely debilitate to the point where they are unable to communicate even with family members or attorneys," says Walczak.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit has been waiting in jail for treatment for 11 months, charged with stealing three pieces of candy from a store. It was not his first arrest.

Many of the mentally ill in jails are low-level, nonviolent offenders, often homeless with little or no family support. Those who Walczak calls "the forgotten among the forgotten."

"They truly are the voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and what we believe are blatantly illegal imprisonments," he says.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the commonwealth to allocate enough resources to be able to accept those committed to competency restoration treatment within a week.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA