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Prisons violate rights of mentally ill inmates, lawsuit claims

BOSTON --Isolating inmates with severe mental illnesses in segregation units causes further psychological deterioration and contributes to an increase in suicide attempts, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the state prisons system.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court by the Disability Law Center Inc. claims that the treatment of mentally ill prisoners is a violation of the Constitution and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"These prisoners are subjected to horrific conditions which cause them to harm themselves significantly and all too often in a fatal manner," said Stanley Eichner, the law center's executive director.

There were seven inmate suicides in Massachusetts state prisons last year, and one so far this year, he said.

The Department of Correction said Thursday it would not comment on pending litigation, but repeated its commitment to implementing the recommendations of a state-commissioned study on suicide prevention that it received last month.

The lawsuit was filed after a yearlong study by the center in maximum-security prisons Cedar Junction in Walpole and Souza-Baranowski in Shirley. It included 220 inmate interviews.

About one-quarter of the 11,000 inmates in the state prison system are mentally ill, and several hundred of them are held in segregation units where they are isolated for up to 23 hours a day, with no outside contact, and without proper mental health treatment, the suit claims.

The lawsuit asks that mentally ill inmates not be held in isolation; the establishment of specialized units to treat ill inmates; and the appointment of an independent mental health professional to monitor the situation.

It claims that the Department of Correction has ignored the advice of independent studies that recommended changes in the treatment of mentally ill inmates, including the establishment of residential treatment units and better training for guards.

The state-commissioned study offered 29 recommendations, including making cells more "suicide-resistant," training guards in suicide prevention, and more "out of cell" time for inmates.

Veronica Madden, an associate commissioner, last month called the report "our roadmap to corrective action."

The department said Thursday it has already begun action on the recommendations, including briefing all superintendents and senior staff and revising the training curriculum for its current recruit class.

It also has conducted a comprehensive assessment of all watch cells to determine design improvements and referred clinical treatment recommendations to the University of Massachusetts, which provides mental health care in the department.

The department also has a contract out for bids for a residential treatment unit for maximum security, development of a behavior management unit with specialized therapy, and weekend and evening coverage by mental health professionals, the statement said.

The lawsuit includes the experiences of 18 inmates, none identified by name.

One 24-year-old inmate, identified as Mr. L, has been diagnosed with severe borderline personality disorder, has swallowed glass, wires and eyeglass arms while in the segregation unit. Pictures of the man, on view at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, show self-mutilation, including cuts, welts and scars on the man's face, neck, arms and abdomen.

"The extreme isolation and sensory deprivation suffered by Massachusetts prisoners are intolerable," said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional legal Services.