ACLU of Arkansas Says Court Ruling Brings New Hope to Mentally Ill Jail Inmates Denied Treatment

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
May 7, 2002 12:00 am

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ACLU of Arkansas
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LITTLE ROCK, AR--The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas won a significant victory for the mentally ill today when a federal judge ruled that the state violated the rights of mentally ill inmates by allowing them to languish in jails and denying them court-ordered evaluations and treatment.

"We hope this is a new day for mentally ill incarcerated inmates in Arkansas jails and their families -- and for jail personnel as well," said Bettina Brownstein, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Arkansas.

In his ruling, Judge Stephen P. H. Reasoner agreed with the ACLU that the long waits endured by inmates amounted to punishment and that the state was deliberately indifferent to their plight in contravention of their right to due process under the United States Constitution.

"The lengthy and indefinite periods of incarceration, without any legal adjudication of the crime charged, caused by the lack of space at [the Arkansas State Hospital], is not related to any legitimate goal, is purposeless and cannot be constitutionally inflicted upon the members of the class," Judge Reasoner said in his opinion. "No matter who is at fault, the State of Arkansas must address the mental health needs of the class members in this case."

"The next step is to move forward to the remedy phase," said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "The judge set June 10th for the hearing on how to fix this problem, and we will be ready with plenty of ideas."

The ACLU of Arkansas filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court on July 12, 2001, against the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health and the Sebastian County, Arkansas sheriff on behalf of all those in Arkansas jails, both awaiting court ordered forensic evaluations (to determine fitness to stand trial), and those who have been evaluated and sent back to jail. In both cases, the ACLU lawsuit said, jail inmates -- who are also pre-trial detainees and not guilty of any crime -- are receiving very little or no mental health treatment while at jail. Howard Erler and James Terry were the individuals named in the lawsuit.

Erler had tried to commit suicide in an Arkansas jail three times, and was ordered by a court to receive a forensic evaluation. Even though Erler was clearly suicidal and in need of reparative surgery to his hands and arms from his suicide attempts, it took the ACLU lawsuit to get him into the State Hospital.

Terry had already been diagnosed by the State Hospital staff with psychotic disorder and borderline intellectual functioning, and was recommended and then ordered by a court for commitment to the Hospital. Nevertheless, he waited in a county jail for more than six months before the ACLU action got him a bed at the state hospital.

In November 2001, Judge Reasoner agreed that the case could be brought as a class action on behalf of all Arkansas jail inmates. Little Rock attorneys Brownstein and Paul James are representing the inmates for the ACLU of Arkansas.

Previous news releases about the case are online at /node/10448 and /node/10493.

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