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Locked Up and Locked Down: Mentally Ill Inmates Segregated

Advocates say a lawsuit about prisoner treatment in Indiana has improved conditions behind bars. (
Advocates say a lawsuit about prisoner treatment in Indiana has improved conditions behind bars. (
September 20, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS – From 80,000 to 100,000 inmates currently are segregated in prison cells nationwide for 22 to 24 hours a day, and many of them have mental illnesses that begin with isolation, or they have symptoms that are heightened because of it. A report put out this month by Amplifying Voices of People with Disabilities (AVID) found that prisoners with mental illnesses are routinely separated from everyone else.

Dawn Adams, the executive director if Indiana Disability Rights, said there's a lack of understanding about people who are mentally ill, and often what they do is mistaken for bad behavior.

"Someone with serious mental illness may be acting a certain way, sometimes just end up in prison and they're usually people that have very low incomes if any income at all," she explained.

Adam said that means they can't afford legal help. Her group and the ACLU recently won a court case against the Indiana Department of Corrections, alleging that mentally ill inmates were being kept isolated in harsh conditions. The court found that the department's practices violated Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

Melissa Keyes, legal director of Indiana Disability Rights, said since then there have been several improvements made.

"The Department of Corrections has established several treatment centers within prisons to kind of help inmates with severe mental illness get more treatment," she said. "Indiana's Department of Corrections has done a lot to try and address the problems of mental illness in prisons."

The report suggests ways to address the problem in the nation's prisons, including more funding and data collection, better monitoring of inmates, and giving prisoners a place to turn for help while locked up.

Adams said there also needs to be more help for inmates once they're released from custody.

"Even if they get the treatment in prison and you let them go and there's nobody out on the other side to help them get through that process, then they're just going to wind up back in the prison system," she added.

The AVID project was developed by Disability Rights Washington and is now a collaboration among advocacy groups in 23 states, including Indiana.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IN