Michigan Judge Orders an End to the Use of Restraints on Prisoners

November 13, 2006 12:00 am

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Immediate Improvements in Prison Mental Health Care Ordered Today

CONTACT: jkent@npp-aclu.org

KALAMAZOO, MI – Today Judge Richard Alan Enslen ordered that Michigan prison officials must make significant improvements to mental health care and cease the use of in-cell non-medical restraints for punishment, just one month after he heard arguments from the ACLU National Prison Project and local civil rights attorneys that mental health care in Michigan was a failure. The decision affects several prison facilities in Jackson, Michigan.

“This is an extraordinarily important decision because it is the first in the country to ban the use of in-cell non-medical restraints,” said Elizabeth Alexander of the ACLU National Prison Project.

Judge Enslen’s opinion details the August 2006 death of a prisoner, referred to as T.S., who was mentally ill, and left to die in an isolation cell where he was strapped down on a cement slab at his wrists and ankles. After four days in such conditions, the 21-year-old prisoner died, apparently of dehydration. Judge Enslen opened his opinion with a statement of recognition for this and other tragic and avoidable deaths resulting from deficient health care. He wrote, “Say a prayer for T.S. and the others who have passed. Any earthly help comes far too late for them.”

Elizabeth Alexander argued in court that the treatment of T.S. and other prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment. Indeed, the ACLU argued, the conduct of a nurse who abandoned T.S. after noting a weak pulse may have constituted criminal negligence. The court agreed.

Judge Enslen wrote, “While it is true that the medical examiner has not announced an official cause of death, the delay in doing so suggests both that in depth toxicology work is being performed and full consideration given to ascribing a manner of death suggesting criminal liability.”

Judge Enslen’s opinion noted testimony by Dr. Robert Cohen, a physician who serves as the court-appointed monitor, who compared the use of restraints on prisoners to torture. In the October hearing Dr. Cohen testified that ethical standards by the American Medical Association, which require physicians to “oppose… and not participate in torture for any reason” were violated in the case of the death of T.S.

“We are delighted by the court’s decision to call for an immediate end to the use of non-medical restraints on prisoners and require proper mental health staffing,” said Patricia Streeter, a long-time civil rights attorney also representing the plaintiffs. “It is disturbing that this form of punishment is still used in this country.”

The opinion is online at www.aclu.org/prison/mentalhealth/27361lgl20061113.html

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