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Indiana ACLU Announces Settlement to Help Mentally Ill Prisoners

In 2008, long before the issue became a focus of national attention, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana filed a federal civil rights suit against the Indiana Department of Correction (DOC), challenging inadequate treatment of mentally ill prisoners. After years of litigation, the ACLU won a significant settlement in the class-action case that will improve mental health care for Indiana state prisoners.

The ACLU had alleged that “The Indiana Department of Correction provides insufficient programs and placements to treat these prisoners and many are confined in segregation or excessively isolated [in] harsh conditions which exacerbate their illnesses and conditions where they fail to receive adequate mental health care.” The ACLU stated that such practices were violative of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12132 and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794.

Eight years of litigation ensued, with the DOC trying and failing to have the lawsuit dismissed. As noted by the ACLU in a recent press release, “Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled that the DOC, which had been placing seriously mentally ill prisoners in isolation, ... violated Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, ... [causing] significant worsening of symptoms and illness, including hallucinations, increased paranoia and depression, self-harm and suicide.”

After the district court ruled against the DOC in December 2012 following a bench trial, prison officials decided to make changes in their approach to the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, opening the Pendleton Treatment Unit/INSIGHT Unit (Intent on Shaping Individual Growth with Holistic Treatment). The 250-bed prison hospital and treatment center was designed to house prisoners formerly held in segregation. New facilities to treat the mentally ill were also opened in special needs units at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the New Castle Psychiatric Facility and the Indiana Women’s Prison.

Although the DOC denied the allegations raised in the ACLU’s complaint, it agreed to a comprehensive settlement in January 2016 that included almost every remedy sought in the lawsuit, including broadening its definition of mental illness regardless of a prisoner’s previous diagnosis. Approximately 664 prisoners now meet the agreed-upon definition of mental illness, including 402 currently in segregation or restrictive housing units, 128 at the New Castle Psychiatric Facility and 134 at the Wabash Valley Special Needs Unit.

Additionally, prison officials agreed to provide “at least 10 hours a week of therapeutic programming, not including time out of a cell for recreation, showers, or other purposes permitted generally to offenders not in the certified class.” The settlement allows mentally ill prisoners to be placed in segregated/restricted housing for up to 30 days under specified conditions, including well-founded fears for the safety of other prisoners and guards.

Also included in the settlement are provisions for frequent monitoring of prisoners’ mental health needs, for in-cell monitoring by correctional staff and for reporting changes in a prisoner’s classification to the court-appointed monitor. The DOC further agreed to pay $585,000 in attorney fees to the ACLU and Indiana Protection & Advocacy Services, which represented the class members.

The federal district court retained jurisdiction to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, which will remain in effect for three years. Final approval of the settlement was entered by the court on March 24, 2016. See: Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01317-TWP-MJD.

Previously, the Indiana DOC had settled another class-action suit by agreeing to remove mentally ill prisoners from long-term solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.24].

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Related legal case

Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction