U.S. District Court Approves Settlement Reached in Five-Year Litigation Over Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Prisoners

BOSTON (April 12, 2012) – Ending a five-year litigation battle over the state’s practice of isolating prisoners with serious mental illness for up to 23 hours a day, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf today approved a settlement that results in systemic reforms, including a mental health classification system and two maximum security mental health treatment units as alternatives to segregation.

“The agreement, among other things, provides a reasonable process for minimizing the confinement of inmates with serious mental illness in segregation and for reviewing the mental health of inmates in segregation,” wrote Wolf in his 33-page opinion issued today. “In addition, the agreement involves an approach to protecting mentally ill prisoners that is similar to that employed in recent settlements an court orders in jurisdictions.”

Prisoners who are placed in segregation for breaking prison rules spend 23 hours a day in small, concrete cells with only a narrow slot in the door through which meals are delivered. In March 2007, the Disability Law Center (DLC) sued the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) and several of its senior administrators alleging that housing seriously mentally ill inmates in segregation violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment and violated the American with Disabilities Act. DLC filed suit after 11 prisoners committed suicide in segregation cells within 28 months. At least seven of these prisoners had serious mental illness.

“This is a victory on several fronts,” said Bingham lawyer Alison Hickey Silveira, representing the DLC pro bono with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and lawyers at Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Center for Public Representation. “The settlement charts a course for Massachusetts to follow in treating mentally ill prisoners humanely and establishes a foundation for state officials to improve conditions going forward.”

Nelson Mullins partner Jim Rollins added that “though the case has been hard fought for years, we are particularly pleased to resolve this matter by agreement with the commonwealth, which should expedite implementation of the reforms.”

Prison advocates hailed the settlement, noting that the resolution will likely result in fewer suicides among mentally ill prisoners and a safer environment for prison staff and other inmates by providing treatment to inmates with mental illness that substantially reduces disruptive and assaultive behavior.

Litigation Spurs Reform

As a result of the litigation, DOC already has implemented significant systemic reforms, including a mental health classification system, a policy to exclude inmates with severe mental illness from long-term segregation, and the design and operation of two maximum security mental health treatment units as alternatives to segregation. These units have dramatically reduced the number of acts of self harm and suicide attempts. They have also made the prisons safer for staff and other inmates by substantially reducing disruptive and assaultive behavior.

Under the terms of the agreement, DOC must maintain the number of beds in the alternative secure treatment units and “strictly regulate” the amount of time that prisoners with severe mental illness are held in other segregation units. In addition, DOC also must provide expanded mental health services and out-of-cell time for prisoners with mental illness who are awaiting placement in treatment units or removal from segregation.

DLC maintained that the misuse of segregation for prisoners who had difficulty adapting to prison because of their mental illness was a major factor behind Massachusetts prisons’ alarmingly high suicide rate. The suicide rate in DOC facilities was more than double the national average between 2007 and early 2011. Indeed, 18 more inmates have committed suicide between 2007 and 2010 – eight of them in 2010 alone. Psychiatrists and courts have found that segregation’s harsh conditions, sensory deprivation and lack of human contact exacerbate serious mental illness and can lead to suicide and other serious self harm.

Given these statistics, DLC Executive Director Alan Kerzin promised that his staff and consulting expert would closely monitor the implementation of the agreement. He praised the state for its cooperation and its willingness to settle and added, “We don’t expect any problems, but we’ll be there just in case,” he said.

According to Leslie Walker of Prisoners’ Legal Services, who represented the plaintiffs, the establishment of the alternative treatment units has greatly increased the likelihood that prisoners with serious mental illness will get appropriate treatment for their illness. “The programs are cost-effective, and they promote public safety by ensuring that when they are released, the prisoners will have a far better chance to successfully reintegrate into society.”

Another plaintiff attorney, Robert Fleischner of the Center for Public Representation, added, “Massachusetts is now moving into the mainstream of segregation reform in the nation. This settlement,” he said, “incorporates the best ideas of clinicians and correctional officials and will greatly benefit prisoners with serious mental illness.”

Plaintiff’s counsel gratefully acknowledge the support of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, The Impact Fund and The Boston Foundation.