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Mentally Ill Wisconsin Prisoners Held in Solitary Improperly Reclassified

by Ed Lyon

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has employed a unique method to reduce the number of seriously mentally ill prisoners being housed in solitary confinement: Their mental health classification competency levels were administratively changed without an assessment or input from mental health professionals.

When Wisconsin DOC psychologist Bradley Boivin returned to work from medical leave in 2016, he discovered class­ification changes had been made regarding 13 of the prisoners assigned to his caseload at the Waupun Correctional Institution.

He learned that the reclassifications were instituted pursuant to a memo issued in July 2015 from DOC Deputy Secretary Cathy Jess. Jess had instructed “psychology staff to reassess the mental health classification of the most seriously ill inmates in solitary confinement.” That is, they were not to reassess the prisoners’ actual mental health, but rather their “classification.”

As a result, the DOC could report that fewer seriously mentally ill prisoners were being held in solitary – not because they had been released from segregation, but rather because they were no longer classified as seriously mentally ill. According to one Wisconsin prisoner, Rayshun Woods, prisoners with the highest mental illness classification, MH-2, were being downgraded “just so they will not have to release them from [solitary].”

“The reality is you see a lot of mental illness and you see things exacerbated in that environment, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, a psychologist, to understand that when you put someone in that kind of an environment – very loud, everywhere you go if you move even to see your therapist you’re shackled – it’s just a very vulgar environment,” Boivin said.

He provided a copy of Jess’ memo to the news media and resigned from the DOC later in 2016 in response to an increasingly hostile work environment caused by his championing the release of mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement.

Boivin characterized the treatment they received in segregation as “beyond unacceptable” to downright “inhumane.”

According to an April 16, 2017 news report, Governor Scott Walker proposed additional funding in the state’s 2017-19 biennial budget to improve conditions for prisoners held in solitary, particularly those with serious mental health conditions. A unit at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution would be used to house up to 86 mentally ill prisoners in a less restrictive setting.

But simply reclassifying prisoners as being less mentally ill than they actually are does nothing to further the state’s laudable goal of reducing the number of such prisoners held in solitary confinement. 


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