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National Report Addresses Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness

Between 80,000 and 100,000 inmates are currently segregated in prison cells nationwide for 22-24 hours per day, for days, months, years, and in some cases decades at a time.

Segregation disproportionately affects inmates with mental illness and research shows that individuals may acquire symptoms of mental illness, or experience exacerbated symptoms of mental illness, as a result of the conditions in segregation. Today, the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project, in partnership with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) and the federally mandated protection and advocacy (P&A) agencies in over 20 states across the country, released Locked Up and Locked Down: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness. The report outlines the advocacy efforts undertaken on behalf of inmates with mental illness in segregation by the P&A network, and calls for greater national prison reform measures.

The report contains examples of both litigation and non-litigation advocacy cases from 21 P&As, and illustrates the sensory deprivation, psychiatric decompensation, and behaviors relating to self-harm and suicide experienced by inmates with mental illness in segregation across the country. According to the report, segregation means the practice of having prisoners isolated in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. Inmates in segregation frequently have limited access to health and counseling services, programming, and services that support rehabilitation and re-entry. Report findings include limited access to mental health treatment, punishment for disability-related behaviors with increased segregation and restraint, the worsening of inmates’ psychiatric symptoms, and death related to the conditions in segregation.

Disability Rights Maryland, the Maryland P&A and a contributor to the report, describes settling a case in which the federal district court asked the P&A to represent an inmate who had filed a lawsuit alleging brutality in prison.  Although the events leading up to the inmate’s lawsuit were barred by the statute of limitation, the P&A learned that the inmate had been held in segregation for over three years, which was harmful to his mental health.  The P&A and its co-counsel negotiated a settlement agreement with the State Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to address the inmate’s conditions of confinement including avoiding the use of administrative segregation whenever possible and moving the individual to a prison with less segregation and closer to family members to further mitigate his isolation..

The report includes the following recommendations to address this crisis in our nation’s prisons:

  • Increased federal funding to the P&A network for corrections-based monitoring and advocacy;
  • Creation of independent corrections ombuds offices at the state level in order to address inmate concerns before they rise to the level of litigation;
  • Increased data collection by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics regarding the prevalence of people with mental illness in U.S. prisons and jails;
  • Increased monitoring and outreach in prisons by P&As across the country;
  • Fostering of collaborative relationships between state prison systems and P&As.

The report is available at AVIDprisonproject.org, where both the text of the report, and extensive original interviews with inmates with mental illness and corrections experts can be accessed. 

About the AVID Prison Project

The AVID Prison Project is an advocacy initiative focused on the needs of current and former inmates with disabilities. The project was developed by Disability Rights Washington and this report is a collaboration among NDRN, the P&As in Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Carolina, and Washington, with communication assistance from the P&As in Louisiana and Texas, and additional input from Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont.

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Press Release – Locked Up and Locked Down

AVID Prison Project Video Playlist