Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Patrick aide spurns prison policy change

Patrick aide spurns prison policy change
Rejects call to ban solitary confinement for the mentally ill
By Michael Rezendes and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff | December 12, 2007

The Patrick administration said yesterday that it would not support a blanket ban on the placement of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, rejecting calls for swift action from lawmakers who said the practice only makes sick prisoners sicker and prone to suicide.

"What I've been reading about and what I've heard about is horrible," Governor Deval Patrick said, reacting to a Globe Spotlight report that detailed an alarming rate of inmate suicide and self-inflicted harm behind state prison walls.

Still, the governor's public safety secretary, Kevin M. Burke, said that while the administration is committed to ensuring mentally ill inmates receive proper treatment, an outright prohibition on locking them in isolation could jeopardize the safety of correctional staff, other inmates, and the mentally ill themselves.

"We don't think that's a good idea," Burke said.

But several lawmakers on Beacon Hill, reacting to the Globe report, said they would push for legislation to keep mentally ill inmates out of closet-size solitary confinement cells.

"We have an obligation to treat the people who are ill who are in the state's custody," state Representative Ruth B. Balser, who chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said at a State House news conference with prisoner advocates.

She said the bill would "establish a policy which is not only humane, but will ultimately save the Commonwealth money and will protect the public safety."

For nearly 20 years, there have been calls for high-security treatment units for violent, mentally disturbed prisoners. But there has been little progress toward that goal. Earlier this year, the administration secured about $1 million to begin to bring some of those units on line, a measure Burke, in an earlier interview, called little more than a "Band-Aid."

Burke said it would take "several million" dollars to fully fund the solution advocates are calling for.

Balser and state Representative Kay Khan want the correction department to build the high-security special treatment units within each state prison to house mentally ill inmates who are difficult to manage and who pose a danger to themselves or to correction officers and other inmates. The units are cells staffed by mental health professionals and by officers who are trained to deal with mental illness.

"The Department of Correction did not ask to become the state's biggest psychiatric facility, but it is," said Leslie Walker, director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. She said the department's recent record with mentally ill inmates, documented this week by the Globe, is a continuation of a problem that has festered for two decades.

"What has been lacking is not knowledge, however," Walker said. "It has been political will."

The Globe reported that 15 inmates have committed suicide in Massachusetts prisons in the past three years, and a 16th was left brain dead. Nine of these prisoners were being held in isolation. Many of them suffered from mental illness or drug addiction.

Patrick said the money he wanted to spend on state prisons this year was trimmed by state lawmakers. His spokesman said the governor expects to file legislation "within a month" that would provide an additional $10 million to $15 million in funds for improvements in prison facilities.

"But I don't think anybody believes that the solution resides in more money alone," the governor said. "It's better strategies. It's more accountability. I think we have the right leadership at the [Department of Correction] to help deliver that, and they know I'm watching."

When Patrick was heading the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice during the Clinton administration, he issued sharp criticism of states that he said failed to implement policies that adhered to "notions of humanity and decency" when housing mentally ill inmates. In 1996, for example, Patrick threatened Maryland's governor, Parris N. Glendening, with a lawsuit, in part because of the state's practice of housing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.

"Where conditions of segregation greatly exacerbate mental illness, and the period of segregated confinement is prolonged or indefinite, feasible alternative custodial arrangements should be explored," Patrick said then in a 13-page letter outlining his concerns about Maryland prisons.

As prison suicides surged, the Massachusetts correction department sought an independent study, which pointed to prison practices and policies that have exacerbated the problem. Conducted by Lindsay M. Hayes, a national prison specialist, the study, released earlier this year, made 29 recommendations for change that were quickly adopted.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit group has a federal lawsuit saying the agency is housing hundreds of mentally ill inmates under inhumane conditions.

The Disability Law Center, which provides legal assistance to the disabled, said in its lawsuit that housing the mentally ill under such conditions amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and should be banned. It also said the practice of isolating mentally ill inmates runs counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

"History will look back on this era," Balser said, "and wonder why we were locking up so many people who were sick."

Beth Healy of the Globe Spotlight team contributed to this report.

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