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Mentally Ill Arkansas Prisoners Removed From Supermax, CMS Contract Renewed

On April 21, 2006, the Arkansas Board of Corrections approved a new policy designed to keep mentally ill prisoners out of sensory-deprived environments like the Varner Supermax Unit in Lincoln County. The Board also renewed the prison systems contract with Correctional Medical Services (CMS).

The new supermax policy was implemented about two months after an investigation by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette revealed that mentally ill prisoners were housed at Varner in 7-foot by 11-foot cells nearly around the clock because the prison system lacked suitable beds elsewhere. In March about eight prisoners were removed from the supermax on the advice of a prison psychiatrist.

The new policy is certainly a step in the right direction, though the idea that these environments can cause a mentally ill prisoners condition to deteriorate is not exactly groundbreaking. Mental health experts around the country have been saying this for years. Whats more, federal courts have ruled consistently that housing mentally ill prisoners in supermaxes may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the new policy, housing assignments and other actions that could worsen a mentally ill prisoners condition are prohibited, said Wendy Kelley, the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADOC) top mental health official. Before it had been more on inmates taking responsibility for their behavior, said Kelley. The focus now is on determining if an inmate is mentally ill. ... If hes mentally ill, the focus now is on recommendations that will change the behavior. Mental health officials will be charged with making the recommendations, which will include drug therapy, talk therapy, and other psychological treatments.

Also at the Boards April meeting, a one-year extension of CMSs $43 million contract was unanimously approved. The ADOC contracted with CMS in 2003 to provide medical care to 13,500 prisoners in the states 18 prisons. The cost breakdown amounts to $237.59 per prisoner per month.

Despite the contract extension, the Board criticized CMS for its poor dental services and staff retention, inefficient data collection and analysis, and for not keeping up with prisoners medications when they are transferred. But if thats the ADOCs only complaint theyre doing good. As consistently reported in PLN, the St. Louis-based CMS has been condemned by prisoners, advocates, and detention facility officials nationwide for being more concerned about the bottom line than about prisoner health care. See, for example, PLN, December 2005, p.l. See PLN indexes or visit online at for more.

Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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