Indiana's "Supermax" Confinement Worsens Mental Illness in Prisoners, ACLU Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
February 3, 2005 12:00 am

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INDIANAPOLIS – The extreme isolation and sensory deprivation found in Indiana’s Secured Housing Unit spurred four suicides and numerous self-mutilations by mentally ill prisoners, said the American Civil Liberties Union today in a lawsuit filed against state prison officials.

“Locking up prisoners with mental illness in small windowless cells is psychological torture,” said Ken Falk, Legal Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. “Confinement for lengthy periods of time in 24-hour isolation would compromise even a healthy person’s sanity.”

At issue in today’s complaint, filed by the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Indiana Civil Liberties Union, are the brutal conditions faced by mentally ill prisoners confined in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana, a “supermax” facility. The ACLU charges that the prisoners’ mental illness is exacerbated by the unbearable conditions in the SHU, which have caused prisoners to hallucinate, rip chunks of flesh from their bodies, rub feces on themselves and attempt suicide.

“A disproportionately high number of mentally ill prisoners are transferred to the SHU because they are often misidentified as trouble-makers in prison,” said David C. Fathi, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “If mentally ill prisoners receive inadequate mental health care or their disease worsens because of the extreme deprivation within the SHU, it is likely they will find it difficult to obey prison rules and will remain stuck at the facility indefinitely.”

For prisoners at the SHU, little has changed since 1997 when Human Rights Watch detailed many of the abuses faced by mentally ill prisoners in the report Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana. “Warehousing severely ill and psychotic individuals under conditions that increase their suffering by exacerbating their symptoms, and in facilities that lack adequate mental health services, can only be characterized as cruel,” the report stated.

Prisoners only leave their cells at the SHU to shower or for solitary recreation in a small walled compound, but recreation is often canceled because of bad weather. The cells remain illuminated at night and the unit is extremely noisy, as the prisoners, who cannot see each other, shout in order to communicate. Prisoners are also restricted in their ability to keep books, letters, family photographs or other personal items in their cells. There is no limit on how long a prisoner can spend in the SHU, and many remain there for years on end.

Today’s lawsuit, Mast v. Donahue, was filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Indiana by Falk and Fathi and seeks a ban on placing mentally ill prisoners in the Secured Housing Unit. No money damages are sought.

To read today’s filing in Mast v. Donahue, go to /node/35178.

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