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The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law, 2nd edition

The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law, 2nd edition, by Fred Co-hen (Civil Research Institute, 2008). 1,114 pages, $237.50; and Practical Guide to Correctional Mental Health and the Law, by Fred Cohen (Civil Research Institute, 2011). 788 pages, $149.50

Book review by Julia Etter

The second edition of Fred Cohen’s exhaustive reference book on mentally ill prisoners is a must-have resource. Divided into two volumes, The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law provides guidance to prison officials, civil rights attorneys, jailhouse lawyers and those involved in creating public policy around the treatment of prisoners with mental illness in the United States.

Fred Cohen is hailed as one of the nation’s “foremost experts on correctional law and ... the leading scholar and practitioner in correctional mental health law.” He has acted as a court monitor to ensure improvement of conditions for mentally ill prisoners in six jurisdictions over the past two decades, including the state of Ohio in Dunn v. Voinovich. Cohen currently serves as editor of the Correctional Mental Health Report and Correctional Law Reporter; most importantly, he is well-versed in the reality of prison reform and advocates the use of litigation as the only effective means of improving conditions of confinement.

Like the first edition of The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law [see: PLN, July 1999, p.4], the book’s initial chapters provide a framework of the mental health problem in prisons vis-à-vis relevant legal issues. Chapters Three and Four detail the legal identity and rights of prisoners, the right to demand care for medical needs and how the legal definition of “medical needs” encompasses treatment for serious mental disorders. Of interest to litigants, Chapter Four ex-plains the legal standards for “serious medical needs” and “deliberate indifference,” with case law to help successfully identify and challenge systemic failures to provide care.

Chapters Five through Ten generally define the obligations of prison and jail officials to ensure adequate care for mentally ill prisoners, including in the areas of intake and screening, record keeping and forging professional treatment relationships. Chapter Seven, notably, focuses on case law concerning the treatment obligations of prison officials.

The rest of Volume I and Volume II’s chapters address topics related to particular issues of mental illness among prisoners. Some chapters focus on special classes of prisoners, such as pretrial detainees, juveniles and the mentally disabled, while others examine expectations for administrative strategies that deal with concerns such as suicide, disciplinary proceedings and transporting prisoners for medical care.

Cohen’s data in Chapter 11 on constitutional issues related to isolation, along with specific case studies regarding isolation techniques, speaks to the author’s larger advocacy efforts to end “supermax” confinement practices. Another chapter, on “sexually violent predators,” addresses the lack of constitutional impediments to civil commitment and dis-cusses case law regarding due process and conditions of confinement. Appendices for the two-volume book include significant cases on mental health care for prisoners, the residential treatment unit for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and the consent decree entered in Dunn v. Voinovich.

Like the first edition of this book, the page numbers are still organized by chapter, making a comprehensive search of the text difficult. Cohen did include attorney’s fees and other settlement costs in the appendix of leading cases, per the suggestion of the reviewer of the first edition.

In 2011, Cohen published the Practical Guide to Correctional Mental Health and the Law to serve as a condensed and updated version of The Mentally Disordered Inmate. The Practical Guide includes three appendices that cover 1) leading recent cases involving deliberate indifference and systemic failures to provide treatment, 2) current issues in correctional psychiatry and 3) a “Practice Pointer” in how to prepare an expert report. The Practical Guide also includes analyses of Graves v. Arpaio and the Coleman and Plata decisions in California – important cases from the past two years that dictate how even the most merciless and ruthless “lock ‘em up” states must provide care for mentally ill prisoners.

The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Practical Guide are indispensable for anyone involved in prison or jail ad-ministration or prisoner advocacy. Cohen and his colleagues’ efforts serve to enable advocates of mental health reform to improve the care and conditions of mentally ill prisoners, and demonstrate Cohen’s dedication to his assertion that “you have no right legally, morally, ethically, to take sick people and make them worse...,” which, despite best efforts today, is common practice in most prisons and jails around the country.

The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law, 2nd edition, and Practical Guide to Correctional Mental Health and the Law are available from: Civic Research Institute, P.O. Box 585, Kingston, NJ 08528 (609) 683-4450;

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