Mentally Ill Inmates in Arkansas Gain Ground in Lawsuit Over Poor Treatment and Conditions

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
November 8, 2001 12:00 am

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LITTLE ROCK, AR–Citing the vulnerability of the mentally ill in jail, a federal district judge today agreed that an American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas lawsuit against state health officials charged with failing to provide treatment should be certified as a class action.

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of James M. Terry, who was ordered committed by the Sebastian County Circuit Court on February 2 of this year. Despite his state hospital diagnosis of psychotic disorder and borderline intellectual functioning, he has been sitting in jail in a legal limbo for at least nine months, without medication or treatment.

“James Terry is just one of many people with severe mental illness languishing in Arkansas jails. We are gratified that the court today agreed that this lawsuit should proceed as a class action,” said ACLU of Arkansas cooperating attorney Bettina Brownstein.

In its legal complaint, filed against Deputy Director of the Division of Mental Health Richard Hill and Sebastian County Sheriff Frank Atkinson, the ACLU said that “despite the knowledge of the risk of harm to inmates,” officials have failed to establish “proper policies, practices or procedures to insure timely mental health evaluations and/or mental health treatment for inmates in criminal detention facilities.”

Today, Judge Reasoner questioned the state’s attorneys as to why, when officials seemed ready to admit the inadequacy of the current system, a federal court was needed to resolve the situation, as opposed to the state legislature, by appropriating the necessary funds.

Brownstein answered that the political will simply was not there. “Unless one has some contact with the mentally ill, most people are simply unaware of the problem of mental illness, and they are unsympathetic,” she said. “The state has been aware of the deficiencies of this system for some time, yet the problem has not been fixed and will not be fixed without the court declaring the system unconstitutional.”

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court judgement that the failure to provide mental health treatment in the criminal detention facilities violates the rights of plaintiffs to due process of law and their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The lawsuit also asks the Court to order: 1) forensic evaluations within a proscribed period after a court order; 2) the formulation of policies and procedures by County Sheriffs to provide for adequate mental health care treatment and timely mental health care evaluations for their inmates; 3) immediate and adequate treatment of James Terry; 4) compensatory damages for Mr. Terry.

The lawsuit was filed by Terry’s mother, who is acting as “next friend” for her son, who cannot act on his own behalf.

Another plaintiff in the case represents those on the “other” side of the evaluation process: those who are waiting in jail to receive the court-ordered evaluation.

Howard Erler had been in the Scott County for several months awaiting evaluation; he had tried to commit suicide three times since he has been at the jail, even though he has been on suicide watch. Erler had to have reparative surgery to his hands and arms from his suicide attempts. His mother, Diana Hughes, contacted the ACLU after learning of the lawsuit in the news.

Acting as Erler’s guardian, she too joined the lawsuit as his “next friend.” Soon after doing so, Erler was evaluated and transferred to the State Hospital for treatment.

The trial is set for December 10, 2001.

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