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Indiana DOC Agrees to Remove Mentally Ill Prisoners from Control Units

The Indiana Department of Corrections (IDC) settled a class action lawsuit brought by mentally ill prisoners whose Eighth Amendment rights had been trampled since 1993 by IDC policy that placed them in long-term disciplinary housing instead of treating their mental illnesses. The settlement comes ten years after a Human Rights Watch report condemned IDC's mistreatment of the mentally ill prisoners as "torture," and two years after the ACLU filed a class action civil rights complaint in U.S. District Court (S.D. Ind.)

Brian Mast, Michael Woods and Eugene Wells, all suffering from long-term serious mental illnesses, were among the 288 prisoners (mostly mentally ill) housed in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) of IDC's supermax Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. They were placed there because they had accumulated sufficient disciplinary charges at other IDC prisons to warrant at least a two-year SHU term. However, the disruptive behavior that brought them to Wabash was itself a manifestation of their mental illnesses. Cruelly, they were "treated" by the harshest of punitive regimens that only exacerbated their mental illnesses and thereby caused extensions of their initial SHU terms. Mast, who is scheduled for parole in 2014, has a SHU term to 2023. Woods' SHU "out" date is 2025, while Wells' is 2019. But these "out" dates are predicated on (1) their not committing suicide first (a substantial risk they face under the existing inhumane IDC SHU program) and (2) their not accumulating more SHU time as their behavior predictably worsens in lock step with resultant declining mental states. In short, a SHU commitment becomes a death sentence for some of the mentally ill prisoners placed there.

The court found that the SHU inflicted extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation on all mentally ill prisoners. They were in windowless cells, with 24-hour lighting and no human contact. Food was placed in tray slots three times per day. Letters, books and family photographs were severely restricted. Exercise was permitted one hour per day, but with often raw weather and no protective clothing, most chose not to take a trip to the tiny solitary "recreation yard." Because movement from cells to "therapy" interviews or to showers was in chains, many refused these movements and simply cowered in their cells.
Misbehavior resulted in being strapped to the bed in four-point leather restraints, losing all property and being stripped down to ones shorts.
Therapist interviews were accomplished where others could overhear, resulting in prisoners not wanting to talk freely about their troubles.
Misbehavior was often met with what was deemed excessive force during cell extractions. Most SHU prisoners did not "earn" the privilege of having a TV in their cells, only exacerbating their behavioral problems.
The SHU was noisy with prisoners trying to yell to each other from cell to cell, whose mettle was challenged by lexan baffles placed over the air grilles along the edges of their cell doors. Any thus accrued lung development became a plus, however, when it came to visiting, because most visiting booths had no phones, leaving prisoners and visitors to yell through the Plexiglas windows.

On April 26, 2004, Mast grieved the conditions but was denied when IDC told him that regulations prohibit grieving "classification actions." The same regulations prohibit appealing such a denial. Therefore, it was deemed for purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) that he and the class had exhausted administrative remedies because none existed.
It was further determined that IDC knew at all times of the harm they were inflicting yet were deliberately indifferent to it.

The private settlement agreement first defines the "seriously mentally ill" as those with a DSM-IV (standard psychological manual) Axis I diagnosis or those diagnosed with mental illness worsened by SHU confinement. Those so diagnosed shall not be placed into solitary confinement or a SHU, but shall be placed at the New Castle Psychiatric Facility (for intensive treatment cases) or in appropriate mainline facilities. Initial determinations must be made by a psychiatrist within 72 hours of arrival at the SHU, and those failing the examination must be transferred immediately. Those remaining in the SHU must be reevaluated every week by a psychiatrist in a privacy-protected setting. Anyone subsequently diagnosed as mentally ill shall be transferred within 72 hours. The agreement further provides that plaintiff's counsel shall have access to all prisoners and files and shall monitor progress on a monthly basis. The revised procedures were codified by Executive Directive, Appendices XVIB and XVI-C.

The sad truth is that thousands of severely mentally ill prisoners were knowingly abused and tortured by IDC personnel over at least 14 years, until the ACLU came to the rescue. The class was represented by ACLU attorneys Kenneth Falk (Indiana) and David Fathi (Washington, DC). The agreement provides for attorney fees in the amount of $150,109 to be paid at settlement, plus fees/costs incurred during the monitoring period. See: Mast v. Donahue, USDC SD IN, Case Number 2:05-cv-00037 LJM/WGH.

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Related legal case

Mast v. Donahue

The complaint and settlement in this case are both available in the brief bank.