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Idaho Continues To Cell “Dangerously Mentally Ill” Without Charges

On November 14, 2023, Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) secured a budget recommendation from the state Permanent Building Fund advisory council for a new $25 million facility jointly operated by the state’s Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) and its Department of Corrections (DOC), providing a secure treatment facility for “dangerously mentally ill” patients.

The state will soon be the last to hold civilly committed patients in prison, once New Hampshire completes its new 24-bed forensic psychiatric hospital; ground was broken in September 2023 with completion expected in 2025. After that, those deemed too dangerous for the state psychiatric hospital will no longer be sent to prison in the Granite State—leaving Idaho alone to throw its mentally ill citizens in a cell without any charges.

Little made a similar request in the current legislative session. But even sitting on a $1.4 billion surplus at the beginning of 2023, lawmakers killed an effort to build the state its own secure psychiatric facility, which would have cost just $24 million. The most recent effort before that was led by former Republican leader of the state legislature Joe Stegner, who said the proposal’s defeat in 2008 drove him from politics.

Currently, civilly committed Idahoans with the most severe symptoms are held in solitary confinement at the state prison, remaining there 160 days on average. A part-time psychiatrist, a part-time nurse practitioner and 12 other staffers and guards help deal with their severe psychosis as a search is made for an effective medication regimen that might allow other therapies to begin.

Checked at least twice hourly, these “patients” cannot leave their cells except to shower, and even then must be handcuffed, shackled and escorted by guards. Those who take their meds and calmly follow the rules can watch TV or use the microwave in a common area, where there are also phones and email kiosks available. For the rest, there are metal “restraint desks” bolted to the floor where they remain shackled.

“There’s no color. There’s no nice pictures. There’s no couches,” noted DHW coordinator Kasey Abercrombie. “It is prison. And when you think about this population in that setting, it is probably dawning on you how wild this is.”

DOC spokesman Jeff Ray countered that guards assigned to the patients include “some of the best correctional professionals in our department.” But mental health experts agree that psychosis and solitary confinement don’t mix well—the federal court for the Northern District of California called it “the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air.” See: Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995).

 

Sources: New Hampshire Business Review, ProPublica

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