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The ACLU Takes Indiana Prison Officials to Court

Mentally ill prisoners shackled to their beds, sick prisoners denied treatment, indigent prisoners forced to pay for medication or do without -- these and other deplorable conditions at the Westville Correctional Center have forced attorneys for the prisoners to return to the US District Court to ask Judge Allen Sharp to find the Department of Corrections in contempt of the court-approved agreement reached in 1989..

In a case first filed in 1983 (Anderson v. Orr), the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union together with local counsel, successfully challenged the totality of conditions and practices at Westville Correctional Center, the largest prison in Indiana. The prison holds 2,800 medium security prisoners in dormitory-style housing and between 120-180 prisoner/patients in a psychiatric unit which serves the entire state prison system. In the preparations for trial and the extensive negotiations that took place between 1987-89, the main focus of the plaintiffs' efforts was improvement of the appalling psychiatric and medical conditions that existed. At the time of filing, there was no physician coverage at the facility, and treatment in the psychiatric unit was virtually non-existent. As a result, there were no sick call clinics or other means for prisoners to receive medical treatment. Mentally ill prisoners were routinely drugged and placed in four-point restraints for weeks at a time -- a practice uniformly condemned.

The 1989 agreement was supposed to end all that with the establishment of a comprehensive health care service program and sweeping reforms in the psychiatric unit. In the five year's since the agreement, defendants have never fully complied with all the conditions of the settlement and in the last year the level of medical and psychiatric services deteriorated significantly. Instead of providing close supervision and intense treatment, extended use of physical restraints and seclusion continue as the treatment of choice for the mentally ill, with poor monitoring of medication. At the same time, acts of self-mutilation and violent assaults continue almost unabated as patients remain dangerous and unpredictable.

For the general prison population at WCC, the number of psychiatric and general medical staff has not been increased to the levels promised in the agreement. To exacerbate the situation, an obtuse and bureaucratic sick call system has been introduced resulting in 50 - 75% of inmate requests for medical treatment being denied. Prisoners, including the indigent, are instructed to buy over-the-counter medications without any clinical assessment of their condition. "This is not what the prisoners settled for," states the Prison Project's Mark Lopez who negotiated the original settlement. "The prisoners entered into the agreement to ensure that they would be seen and treated by clinically trained medical personnel. Nowhere in the agreement does it state that they must purchase that treatment."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are particularly concerned about the conditions under which prisoners are being held in protective custody. These men, who are kept apart from the general population, are never allowed outdoor recreation and are only allowed indoor recreation at 4:00 a.m. -- timing which seems expressly designed to discourage their participation. The papers filed with the court ask for a Temporary Restraining Order to allow these prisoners outdoor recreation immediately while the court reviews the situation.

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Related legal case

Anderson v. Orr