Court approves settlement in Massachusetts prison case

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A Massachusetts plan to expand protections for inmates with mental illnesses in its state prisons received court approval April 12.

Hands on prison bars

Court Approves Settlement

The Disability Law Center of Massachusetts filed a class action lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections in 2007, accusing it of violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act for its treatment of inmates with mental illnesses. The lawsuit was sparked after 15 inmates with mental illnesses committed suicide in a three-year span.

The parties announced the settlement agreement in February.

“The Agreement addresses the fundamental issue in this case – prison suicides – by providing a process for minimizing the possibility that inmates with serious mental illnesses will be confined in segregation and for reviewing the mental health of inmates in segregation,” the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts stated in its Memorandum and Order, approving the settlement. “Its reliance on Secure Treatment Units as a therapeutic alternative to confinement in segregation represents the best current practices concerning mentally ill inmates.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, the state has adopted measures to prevent people with mental illnesses from being segregated in solitary confinement, where many inmates are held in a cells for as many as 23 hours per day. The state has built two new separate prison units for long-term inmates with mental illness, where they will receive enhanced mental health coverage.

The state has also designed a new mental health classification system, created new procedures for inmates to receive regular clinical treatment, and worked on new methods for integrating mental health professionals into the disciplinary process.

The court will assume jurisdiction over the settlement for three years, though this time period could extend if the state fails to comply with the settlement.

“This is a victory on several fronts,” said Bingham McCutcheon lawyer Alison Hickey Silveira, representing the DLC pro bono with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and lawyers at Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Center for Public Representation, in a news release. “The settlement charts a course for Massachusetts to follow in treating mentally ill prisoners humanely and establishes a foundation for state officials to improve conditions going forward.”

The Disability Law Center of Massachusetts is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.