Civil Rights Groups Sue Doña Ana County Jail over Poor Mental Health Services

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
November 7, 2007 12:00 am

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LAS CRUCES, NM—Civil rights groups sued the Dona Ana County Detention Center today for failure to provide adequate mental health services to inmates in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and constitutional prohibitions on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The class action suit charges county officials with “deliberate indifference to [inmates’] serious mental health needs,” including failure to provide adequate mental health screening, monitoring, and care. On behalf of plaintiffs, Protection and Advocacy System, Inc. (P&A), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, and private attorneys Michael Lilley of Las Cruces and Peter Cubra and Lisa Schatz-Vance of Albuquerque seek an effective program for mental health screening and treatment for all detainees and policy changes prohibiting the unnecessary incarceration of people with mental illness.

“Local officials have chosen to arrest and incarcerate people with serious mental disabilities instead of providing them with the treatment they require,” said P&A Executive Director, Jim Jackson. “After incarcerating them, the county does not provide them with needed treatment at the jail, either. We gave County officials multiple chances to fix the situation and they ignored our efforts. We felt litigation was our only recourse.”

In December, 2006, a jail conditions expert, hired by P&A, inspected the jail and sent a memo to detention center Director Chris Barela recommending improvements in the jail’s program for mental health screening. When their letter went ignored, P&A sent a second letter in June, 2007 requesting that specific problems regarding inadequate mental health care be corrected. The letter followed an attempted suicide by a person held in the jail who is a named plaintiff in the civil rights suit. In May and September 2007 P&A visited with jail officials and reiterated their concerns.

None of these contacts prompted significant improvements in mental health programming.

ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson said, “By ignoring inmates’ mental health problems, the county has created a lose-lose situation. The inmates suffer. The jail suffers, because it faces possible suicides and violence within the facility. And ultimately the citizens of Doña Ana county lose, because eventually some of these inmates will return to society in worse mental states than when they entered the jail. It’s high time the situation was resolved for all concerned.”

The lawsuit was filed in state court. In addition to policy changes, it seeks punitive and compensatory damages.

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