EDITORIAL: Probe mental health care in prisons

2013-01-10T00:00:00Z EDITORIAL: Probe mental health care in prisons nwitimes.com
January 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Incoming Gov. Mike Pence should make it one of his first tasks to address concerns about how mentally ill inmates are treated in the Department of Correction system.

There's a reason for this urgency. A New Year's Eve ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said the Department of Correction "has been deliberately indifferent."

The state prison system isn't geared for caring for a large number of the mentally ill, although nearly a quarter of the inmates are mentally ill. Indiana has two mental health units with capacity for a combined total of about 262 patients. Others are simply locked alone in their cells, which can make matters worse, Pratt ruled.

Being locked in a segregation unit means spending up to 22 hours and 45 minutes a day, and in some cases all day, in a small cell.

"The court finds that mentally ill prisoners within the IDOC segregation units are not receiving minimally adequate mental health care in terms of scope, intensity and duration and the IDOC has been deliberately indifferent," Pratt said in her ruling.

Pratt said the DOC's treatment of mentally ill prisoners qualified as cruel and unusual punishment, which the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids.

Pratt cited an example of a prisoner who committed suicide in 2010 after missing two mental health appointments, one of them because no guards were available to accompany him.

The Department of Correction provides monitoring of prisoners, of course, but monitoring isn't treatment.

It should not be surprising to see so many mentally ill inmates — more than 5,800 — in Indiana prisons. Funding for mentally health has not kept pace with demand. Hopefully, the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., will prompt a national call to action for increase funding for mental health. Judge Pratt's ruling reinforces that need.

Within 45 days of Pratt's ruling, the lawyers involved in the lawsuit are supposed to get together to hammer out a remedy. That should not be the only answer, however.

Pence, who takes office Monday, should order an independent review of conditions in the state's prison system to address this issue.

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