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Settlement for Prisoners with Mental Illnesses Seen as Victory

Indiana has close to 6,000 people in prison who are considered to have serious mental illnesses. (sakhorn38/iStockphoto)
Indiana has close to 6,000 people in prison who are considered to have serious mental illnesses. (sakhorn38/iStockphoto)
February 5, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS - Except in a few, exceptional circumstances, people with mental illnesses in Indiana prisons will no longer be placed in solitary confinement.

The ACLU sued the state in 2008 on behalf of three prisoners it said had little or no access to treatment in "solitary." In 2012, a federal judge ruled it is "cruel and unusual punishment," and late last month, a settlement was reached. Inmates with mental illnesses are to receive at least 10 hours of therapeutic out-of-cell time per week, and frequent visits from clinicians.

Dawn Adams, executive director of Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services, said isolation only leads to worsening of symptoms, including hallucinations, paranoia and depression.

"If you have mental illness, being in solitary confinement is usually going to exacerbate that," she said, "and if you did not go in with serious mental illness, then being in that confinement can send you to that level."

Those who argue in favor of solitary confinement have said it's a safety issue and cite decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, which repeatedly has ruled that officials have a duty to protect people in prison from self-harm or violence from other inmates.

Adams said the effects of solitary confinement can be psychologically devastating, and questions whether it should be used on any prisoner. She said part of the settlement with the state addresses that.

"It also is designed to monitor people who maybe don't fit that definition going into solitary confinement but might fit that condition as a result of being in," she said.

Right now, there are close to 6,000 people in Indiana prisons who are considered seriously mentally ill. The state joins California and New York in entering into settlements requiring changes in state prisons, and President Obama last month announced reforms to prisoner isolation practices in federal prisons.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IN