Federal Court Orders Louisiana to Provide Mental Health Care for Pretrial Detainees

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
August 10, 2010 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS — In a victory for those unable to stand trial due to mental illness, a federal court ruled yesterday that all detainees who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial by Louisiana courts and ordered to receive restorative treatment must be transferred to the Feliciana Forensic Facility within 21 days. The court also ordered that a status report on the transfer of the detainees be submitted within 30 days updating the court on the implementation of its order.

The Advocacy Center and an individual plaintiff, represented on a pro bono basis by law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP and the ACLU of Louisiana, filed the lawsuit on April 12, 2010, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against three state officials in their official capacities.

The lawsuit sought to require the prompt transfer of mentally ill pretrial detainees to the Feliciana Forensic Facility, in compliance with existing court orders and with Louisiana law.

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision to order the swift transfer and treatment of these detainees, some of whom have waited in parish jails for months or even years to receive the treatment they need to be deemed competent to stand trial,” said Marjorie Lindblom, a partner with Kirkland & Ellis LLP. “It’s an important victory for the constitutional rights of citizens who often slip through the cracks, and a first step towards exposing the issues in Louisiana’s funding of, and system for treating and trying, these individuals.”

Under Louisiana law, if a pretrial detainee—someone charged with a crime but not yet tried—is diagnosed as lacking the mental capacity to stand trial, that person must be given restorative mental health treatment or be released from custody. The law requires those with the most severe mental health issues to be sent to the Feliciana Forensic Facility for inpatient mental health treatment so that criminal proceedings can resume. But for many years, funding for Feliciana has been wholly inadequate, causing a dramatic shortage of treatment beds at the facility. As a result, many detainees who have been ordered by the courts into the custody of Feliciana, and who should have been sent there for treatment, instead remain in local jails without the ability to go to trial, sometimes for long periods of time, despite their presumed innocence.

“This lawsuit was about getting severely mentally ill people the treatment they need so that they can pursue their right to due process,” said Lois Simpson, Executive Director of the Advocacy Center.

“For years, Louisiana has been turning people with illnesses into prisoners for no reason other than allocation of funds,” said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana,. “People known to have disabilities are imprisoned indefinitely when they haven’t been convicted of anything, simply because the state of Louisiana won’t spend the money to provide them with treatment. This is not just illegal, it is an unconscionable way to treat vulnerable people.”

In its order, the court said: “Defendants’ limited resources are a concern, but lack of funding cannot justify the continued detention of defendants who have not been convicted of any crime, who are not awaiting trial, and who are receiving next to no mental-health services. While these Detainees are in parish jails, their continued confinement bears no rational relationship to the restoration of their competency. Their confinement is also not the result of any decision by a mental-health professional. And it is undisputed that they remain in parish jails for extended periods of time.”

The court’s order also highlights the impact of inadequate funding on the proper treatment of incompetent detainees at parish prisons. Citing the testimony of Dr. Demaree Inglese, the medical director of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office and the former medical director of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office, the court noted: “The St. Tammany parish jail is ‘not equipped or built to be a psychiatric facility housing severely ill psychiatric patients, whether they are chronically ill or acutely ill.’ Problem patients at St. Tammany—particularly those on suicide watch or who otherwise pose a danger to themselves by, for example, repeatedly banging their heads against walls—are placed into isolation cells of approximately four feet by four or five feet in dimension, with mesh walls and nothing inside the cell.”

Lindblom praised the court’s order as not just a win for incompetent detainees, but for the parish jails. “This order will help ensure that parishes like St. Tammany will be able to transfer incompetent detainees to a facility like Feliciana—which is where they belong—instead of placing them in four-by-four isolation cells to prevent them from harming themselves. The court’s order is as important to the parish jails that house incompetent defendants as it is for the incompetent defendants themselves.”

The individual plaintiff, a minor whose mother is acting on his behalf, is a detainee who was found incompetent to stand trial but not transferred in a timely manner to an inpatient mental health facility due to the shortage of beds. Only after plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction was he transferred to a facility capable of providing him with court-ordered restorative treatment.

“Others have been incarcerated for even longer than this individual, some for over two years,” said Esman. “These people are in jail for one reason: they need medical attention that the State of Louisiana has not provided despite its legal obligation. This ruling means that vulnerable people will finally get the medical care that they need and be treated as the patients that they are, and not simply held in jail.”

About The Advocacy Center
The Advocacy Center is a nonprofit corporation designated by Louisiana to protect and advocate for persons with disabilities.

About Kirkland & Ellis
Kirkland & Ellis LLP is a law firm with approximately 1,500 lawyers representing global clients in complex litigation and dispute resolution/arbitration, corporate and tax, restructuring, and intellectual property and technology matters. The Firm has offices in New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Munich, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C.

About the ACLU of Louisiana
The ACLU of Louisiana defends the basic rights and freedoms of Louisiana residents, through litigation, advocacy, and public education.

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