Solitary Confinement Called "Inappropriate" for Mentally Ill Prisoners in Indiana

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
January 30, 2007 12:00 am

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In Court Settlement with ACLU, Indiana Corrections Officials Agree Not to Keep Mentally Ill Prisoners in Extreme Isolation

INDIANAPOLIS-The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project and the ACLU of Indiana announced today that, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Indiana Department of Correction has agreed to move all mentally ill prisoners out of the Secured Housing Unit (SHU), a “Supermax” unit where prisoners are forced to live in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for months or even years.

Indiana prison officials signed a settlement agreement with the ACLU today, promising to avoid housing seriously mentally ill prisoners in long-term isolation and to provide additional mental health services for all prisoners housed in the SHU.

“No one should be subjected to the brutal conditions of these isolation units, but for the mentally ill to live in them is truly a form of domestic torture,” said Kenneth J. Falk, Legal Director of the ACLU of Indiana. “We are pleased that the Indiana Department of Correction has made the right decision to remove mentally ill prisoners from the SHU.” Falk and David C. Fathi, senior staff counsel of the ACLU National Prison Project, represented the prisoners in the lawsuit.

The “Supermax” unit, located at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana, is used to house prisoners in disciplinary or administrative segregation. Every prisoner in the unit is forced to live in solitary confinement where cells remain illuminated throughout the day and night and prisoners are only allowed to leave the cells for showers once a day and for solitary recreation, weather permitting. While housed in the unit, prisoners have had very limited contact with the outside world. Calls and visits with family and friends have been restricted, and there have also been limitations on prisoners’ ability to keep personal items in their cells, such as family photographs, letters from loved ones, newspapers, or books. Prisoners may spend years in these conditions.

In February 2005, the ACLU challenged the constitutionality of housing mentally ill prisoners in the SHU after a series of four suicides and numerous self-mutilations took place there in a two-year span. In the lawsuit, Mast v. Donahue, the ACLU cited research by mental health experts showing that prisoners who are forced to live in extreme isolation are likely to experience intense pain, suffering, and mental deterioration. According to experts, the impact on mentally ill prisoners is even more severe, often leading to self-mutilation or suicide.

Until the ACLU lawsuit, little had changed at the “Supermax” unit since 1997, when Human Rights Watch and a team of psychiatrists inspected the facility, finding that severely mentally ill and psychotic prisoners were held under conditions that exacerbated their conditions. In its report, Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana, Human Rights Watch stated that, “in some cases, the suffering that results is so great that the treatment must be condemned as torture.”

The ACLU also raised concerns about the high number of mentally ill prisoners who end up in the secure unit because of behavioral problems frequently related to their mental illness. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study looked at the rates of disciplinary charges against mentally ill prisoners compared to those against other prisoners. The September 2006 report revealed that of those state prisoners charged with violating prison policy, 58 percent had mental health problems.

“A disproportionate number of mentally ill prisoners are sent to the “Supermax” unit for disciplinary reasons that are often directly related to their illnesses,” said Fathi. “We expect that our recent settlement agreement will eliminate the practice of simply punishing mentally ill prisoners for their illness and will bring needed treatment to these prisoners instead.”

In addition to today’s case, the ACLU has brought lawsuits challenging “Supermax” prisons in Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut, and New Mexico. All of these cases have resulted in court orders or settlement agreements providing that seriously mentally ill prisoners will not be held in these facilities.

The Mast v. Donahue settlement agreement can be found online at:

The Mast v. Donahue complaint filed in February 2005 can be found online at:

The Human Rights Watch report, Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana, can be found online at:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics report, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, can be found online at:

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