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Warehousing the Mentally Ill

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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December 19, 2007

Ensuring proper care for incarcerated people with mental illness has increasingly become a hot button issue across the country. From Maine to Nevada and in between, state legislatures and department of corrections officials have been forced in recent months to grapple with the fact that the care provided to mentally ill prisoners has been substandard at best and life-threatening at worst.

But as Libby Lewis’ story this morning for National Public Radio documents, one of the worst places to be caught up in the correctional system as a person with mental illness is the U.S. Virgin Islands, an American territory that is governed by the same constitutional principles that the rest of the United States seeks to abide by.

A quick glance at a medical report detailing the standard of care provided to mentally ill prisoners at the Criminal Justice Complex in the Virgin Islands reveals the sickening reality faced by inmates there. Lewis focuses on the story of Jonathan Ramos, who suffers from chronic schizophrenia. Ramos has been imprisoned for more than five years now after stealing a bicycle from a local Wal-Mart because there is no mental health facility in the Virgin Islands to treat him. But Ramos is only one of a handful of inmates with mental illness who continue to be victimized by a woeful criminal justice system and governmental officials who seemingly don’t care.

Eric Balaban, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, has asked a federal judge to levy fines against officials in the Virgin Islands to force them to comply with two years worth of court orders and move the five other mentally ill prisoners in the Virgin Islands to a hospital that can treat them properly.

People like Ramos who are in desperate need of proper treatment and care deserve better than to have to rot away in prison, tossed aside and forgotten about, while their urgent mental health needs go unattended to. Allowing our nation’s prison system to turn into de-facto warehouses for the mentally ill not only does people like Ramos a grave injustice, but it also does an injustice to already overburdened and overpopulated prisons. Victory in this case in the Virgin Islands would send a clear message to the rest of the country about the urgent need for systemic reform and overhaul.