Indiana agrees to end solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates

In late January, Indiana joined other US states in the recent trend of restricting the use of solitary confinement by prohibiting seriously mentally ill inmates from being held in restrictive housing.

Photo by Indiana Department of Correction.

In late January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU) and the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services (IPASC) entered into a private settlement agreement with the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.  The agreement, which stems from a complaint against the DOC filed nearly 8 years ago, purports to improve conditions for mentally inmates by minimizing the time spent in solitary confinement and improving their access to mental health care professionals.

Judge Pratt ruled that the DOC had violated the inmates’ Eight Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment . . .

The action, filed in 2008 by the ACLU and the IPASC, sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commissioner of the DOC, alleging that the DOC had violated both the Eighth Amendment and certain federal statutes by housing seriously mentally ill prisoners in “segregated or exclusively isolated and harsh conditions where they failed to receive adequate mental health care.”  Specifically, the complaint detailed how mentally ill inmates in Indiana had infrequent contact with mental health care professionals, were held in cells with solid doors that required them to yell discussions with mental health professionals, and were often violently removed from their cells.

Originally, the complaint was filed on behalf of Joshua Harrison, Greggory Sims, and James Panozo, three mentally ill inmates housed in these harsh conditions in Indiana.  However, in April 2010, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana certified the case as a class action, meaning the lawsuit was now being brought on behalf of all mentally ill inmates in Indiana who had been subject to similar conditions as Harrison, Sims, and Panozo.

Specifically, the class was defined as: “All current and future mentally ill prisoners who are committed to the Indiana Department of Correction and who are housed in settings in Department of Correction Institutions or in the New Castle Correctional Facility that feature extended periods of time in cells, including, but not limited to, prisoners in disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, or in the New Castle Psychiatric Unit.”

Despite the case being classified as a class action, Harrison, Sims, and Panozo remained the “class representatives” of the action, meaning they are chosen to adequately and fairly represent all of the other class members because of their interests that are typical to the rest of the class.  Because it is not possible to name all members of the class, the class representatives essentially stand for all those allegedly harmed by the DOC.

After the class action certification, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois conducted a bench trial from July 25, 2011 through July 29, 2011 before Federal Judge Tanya Walton Pratt.  At the trial, the ACLU and the IPASC did not pursue their federal statutory claims, but instead argued only that the DOC had violated the Eighth Amendment rights of the inmates included in the class.

On December 31, 2012, Judge Pratt ruled that the DOC had violated the inmates’ Eight Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by placing the inmates in such restrictive and isolated housing without proper access to mental health care professionals.  Judge Pratt then ordered the parties to work out a final resolution to the case, culminating in the settlement agreement reached January 27, 2016.

The parties agreed that segregated and restrictive housing is not proper for seriously mentally ill prisoners

Perhaps most significantly, the parties agreed that segregated and restrictive housing is not proper for seriously mentally ill prisoners. Specifically, the DOC agreed that:

(a) No seriously mentally ill prisoners shall be placed in segregated/restrictive housing (including protective custody) if they are known to be seriously mentally ill prior to such placement.

(b) If a prisoner in segregation/restrictive housing (including protective custody) is found to be, or becomes, seriously mentally ill subsequent to such placement the prisoner shall be removed at the earliest opportunity and placed into an appropriate placement where his or her mental illness can be addressed.

Another principal part of the agreement redefined what constitutes a “mentally ill prisoner.”  Pursuant to the agreement, seriously mentally ill prisoners are now defined as:

(a) Prisoners determined to have a current diagnosis or recent significant history of schizophrenia, delusional disorder, schizophreniform disorder, schizoaffective disorder, brief psychotic disorder, substance-inducted psychotic disorder (excluding intoxication and withdrawal), undifferentiated psychotic disorder, bipolar I or II disorders;

(b) Prisoners diagnosed with any other validated mental illness that is clinically severe, based on evidence-based standards, and that results in significant functional impairment; and

(c) Prisoners diagnosed with an intellectual or developmental disability or other cognitive disorder that results in a significant functional impairment

According to the agreement, “significant functional impairment” can include suicide attempts, serious self-injury, bizarre or disruptive behavior, and difficulty in the prisoner’s ability to engage in activities of daily living such as eating, grooming, and ambulation.

The agreement also developed a new course of mental health programming to be instituted in Indiana prisons

In addition to redefining what constitutes a “mentally ill prisoner,” the agreement also developed a new course of mental health programming to be instituted in Indiana prisons.  The DOC agreed to allow seriously mentally ill prisoners in the class action “to be placed in a setting where they could receive at least 10 hours a week of therapeutic programming, not including the time out of cell for recreation, showers, or other purposes permitted generally to offenders not in the certified class.”

“Therapeutic programming,” the parties agreed, can include activities such as formal group therapy, individual therapy, and other activity determined by mental health professionals as part of an individualized treatment plan.  While therapeutic programming is to be required for all mentally ill prisoners, the parties did stipulate that mentally ill prisoners may be allowed to remain in restrictive housing conditions for up to 30 days without receiving therapeutic programming under exceptional circumstances or if the inmate waives the programming.

These new measures are to be instituted in three primary facilities in Indiana that house mentally ill inmates: New Castle Psychiatric Facility, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, and Pendleton Correctional Facility.  The agreement details specifications for each facility, including housing capacity, therapy programs, and treatment plans.

Another issue the agreement addressed was the significant understaffing of Indiana prisons that contributed to the lack of appropriate care for mentally ill inmates.  In order to combat this problem, the DOC agreed to maintain sufficient staff to manage the prisons’ mental health units and to identify seriously mentally ill prisoners and divert them from placement in segregated or restrictive housing in keeping with considerations of safety and security.

In addition to these issues, the agreement also addresses concerns regarding discipline, monitoring, and reclassification of mentally ill prisoners.

The agreement with the DOC comes in the wake of other positive changes for inmates across the United States.  In September 2015, California overhauled the use of solitary confinement in their prison system.  Just two days before the DOC reached their agreement with the ACLU and the IPASC, President Obama banned the practice of holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons.

Ken Faulk, the ACLU of Indiana legal director, is hopeful that the agreement reached in Indiana in January will continue this path of positive change for inmates. “We fully anticipate this cooperation will continue and that these changes will have a significant positive impact by reducing the severity of mental illness in prisoners who will one day rejoin society,” Faulk said.

Avatar photo
About Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer (17 Articles)
Rachel Goodling is a 2016 graduate and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Cary, North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Political Science minor. Following her first year of law school, Rachel worked at the NC Department of Justice, Medicaid Investigations Division as the criminal intern. Following her second year of law school, Rachel interned at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services handling post-conviction appeals as well as civil claims made by inmates across North Carolina. Rachel was also on Campbell's National moot court team.
Contact: Email