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Connecticuts Mistreatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners and Detainees Enjoined

Connecticuts Mistreatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners and Detainees Enjoined

by John E. Dannenberg

The Connecticut Department of Corrections (CDOC) entered into a settlement agreement in September 2005 that specified extensive changes to its policies for confining and treating mentally ill prisoners and detainees. In response to a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit brought in U.S. District Court (D. Conn.) on behalf of such prisoners by Connecticuts Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (OPA), the settlement provides for immediate injunctive relief, continuing monitoring, and $191,000 in attorney fees and costs.

CDOC uses a unitary correctional system to house both convicted prisoners as well as pre-trial detainees. Regardless of confinement status, any imprisoned person, if determined to be mentally ill, is confined at CDOCs high-security Northern Correctional Institution (NCI) or the Garner Correctional Institution (GCI). GCI has 40 beds for Acute (IPM) and Intensive (IMHU) mental health housing for disruptive prisoners with mental illnesses. At NCI, prisoners are disciplined via a three-level phasing program, which includes punitive deprivations that aggravate mental illness for those who already have it and foment mental illness for those who dont. OPAs suit attacks these inhumane conditions, which serve only to perpetuate mental illness in CDOC.

The complaint described in detail the stark conditions of Phase I, II and III confinement at NCI. In the concrete, almost totally boxed-in cells, Phase I prisoners are locked up virtually 24 hours a day. When let out briefly for showers or recreation, they get precious little exercise as they are confined in full body restraints. Visitation is non-contact and there are no programs. Phase I prisoners can spend years in this state of total idleness. As a result, mental illness is prevalent at NCI, often with catastrophic deterioration, including documented incidents of suicide and suicide attempts by swallowing razors, overdosing on drugs, banging heads on the wall, and compulsive self-mutilation. Since NCI prisoners are double-celled, the stress grows proportionate to the relative incompatibility of the cellmates.

Adding insult to injury, many Phase I prisoners remain stuck in Phase I status because their worsening mental illness itself causes violent acts resulting in disciplinary recommitment to the Phase I regimen. Mental health staff speak to these prisoners, if at all, through the food tray slot and within earshot of other prisoners, hardly a confidential, let alone meaningful, treatment setting. Moreover, mental illness often goes undiagnosed when staff members brand such prisoners as malingerers. The treatment for such a designation is to be summarily stripped naked and tied down in four-point restraints, following extensive use of force and/or violent cell extractions. Prisoners in GCIs IMHU fare no better, suffering the same draconian three-phase program as in NCI. In sum, oppression and exacerbation best describe mental health treatment in CDOC.

The settlement agreement, approved by the Connecticut Legislature, expressly admits to no wrongdoing or violation of anyones constitutional rights. Nevertheless, it openly repairs the obvious wrongs perpetrated by CDOC in dealing with mentally ill prisoners and detainees. Structurally, the agreement (not a consent decree) is for a three-year period, with court supervision available if the independent court-appointed overseers cannot come to terms on an issue. It was agreed the settlement would not be controlled by Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) principles, except as to attorney fee rates.

First, seriously mentally ill prisoners must be removed from NCI, and such prisoners shall be excluded from NCIs administrative segregation program. NCI prisoners shall be subject to periodic mental expert evaluations and, if serious mental illness is detected, they must be removed within ten days. A minimum staffing level of mental health professionals is set forth, to be no less than one per 150 prisoners. Psychotropic medication shall be provided under a psychiatrists care. All mental health services shall be provided under properly confidential conditions, permitting both privacy as well as a place where the patient can feel non-threatened. Use of force, discipline and mechanical restraints against the mentally ill are proscribed, except during exigent circumstances, which are defined. This includes not wearing hand restraints during non-contact visiting.

The agreement goes on to outline programming in Phase I, II and III in a manner that promotes, rather than deters, progression out of such confinement. Accommodations shall be made for the hearing impaired, sight impaired as well as those with learning disabilities, including ADD and ADHD. Conditions of confinement shall permit commissary-purchased audio entertainment devices plus more out-of-cell time. Programming shall include visitation and telephone privileges as well as group activities to permit socialization. Importantly, every NCI and GCI staff person shall receive at least eight hours of annual training, to include suicide prevention, recognition of mental illness signs, communication skills with such prisoners, and alternatives to discipline and use of force. Progress is to be monitored during the three-year period of the agreement, including semiannual audit reports by the independent consultants.

Attorney fees of $177,850 and costs of $13,131 were approved, with provisions for up to $20,000 in ongoing fees and $5,000 in costs per year for the prisoners attorneys. In addition to representation by the OPA, the prisoners were aided by the ACLUs National Prison Projects Washington, DC attorney, David Fathi. See: State of Connecticut OPA v. Choinski, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:03CV1352 (RNC).

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Related legal case

State of Connecticut OPA v. Choinski