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article imageMontana State Prison sued over treatment of mentally ill

By Karen Graham     Apr 7, 2014 in Politics
Prisons in the United States have become the nation's newest mental health asylums. Not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate of any developing nation, at least half of these inmates have mental health problems.
With an inmate population nationwide exceeding 2.2 million people, the alleged lack of proper psychiatric care of those inmates with mental disorders has come under investigation in a number of prison systems across the country.
The Montana State Prison was taken to federal court this week by Disability Rights Montana, a federally mandated civil rights protection and advocacy group. In the lawsuit, the organization alleges Montana State Prison and the Montana State Hospital are placing mentally ill prisoners in extreme forms of isolation, for months and sometimes years at a time.
The prison psychiatrist was also singled out in the lawsuit, with accusations of his withholding medications to prisoners with documented mental illnesses because he thought they were malingering or using their illness to get attention. It was found the psychiatrist would routinely meet with a prisoner for only a few minutes, and make a diagnosis of "faking it," despite significant history to the contrary.
According to the Associated Press, the hope is that the allegations can be handled through negotiations rather than by legal means. Judy Beck, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Corrections said the state would file a response within 60 days. She would not comment further.
In February of this year, the Montana ACLU released an article outlining the findings of their year-long investigation into the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. A pattern of withholding medications, misdiagnosis of prisoners with long histories of mental illness, and punishment for behavior caused by their illnesses were found. It was discovered that mentally ill inmates were deprived of clothing, working toilets, bedding, medications and proper food.
Apparently, prisoners were given something called "nutraloaf" instead of regular meals while in solitary confinement. Nutraloaf is called by several names in the prison systems in America, "seg loaf," confinement loaf, or special management meal. Similar to meatloaf in texture, but with more ingredients that meatloaf, it is served to prisoners who have assaulted guards or shown erratic and unacceptable behavior. It is served without utensils and is supposed to have all the nutritional requirements needed on a daily basis.
Using solitary confinement as a behavioral management plan is a major issue in the lawsuit. It is alleged that mentally ill prisoners are confined to spaces with blacked-out windows, with only a mattress, blanket, a suicide smock and a loaf of the controversial nutraloaf. The nutraloaf has been under attack by civil rights groups for over 10 years because these groups believe it is unconstitutional. In 2003, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that certain behavioral management plans were illegal.
Jeff Simmons, an attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP who is working with the ACLU of Montana, said, "It was readily apparent during the investigation that these problems were not isolated incidents. They were part of a pattern of unconstitutional and abusive treatment of prisoners with mental illness. These people have a constitutional right to receive appropriate mental health care and to be free from abusive solitary confinement and 'behavior modification plans.'''
The ACLU and Disability Rights Montana has also asked the Department of Public Health and Human Services to work on these serious problems. The use of solitary confinement and the mistreatment of prisoners with mental illnesses has become an issue of national and international concern.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture is calling for the elimination of solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness. This came about after a year long investigation of prisoners with mental illness in the U.S.. On February 28, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from corrections officials, human rights advocates, and prisoners and their families regarding the dangers posed by solitary confinement.
More about Mentally ill, Montana State Prison, cruel and inhumane treatment, Isolation, malingering
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