A federal judge has ordered the Indiana Department of Correction to come to her courtroom Wednesday and explain its "precise plans" for improving the treatment of mentally ill prisoners after the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana argued the state doesn't seem to be taking the situation seriously.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt scheduled a hearing for Wednesday and told DOC attorneys to explain what the agency was doing to comply with the order she issued on Dec. 31. That was when she found prison agency's treatment of the nearly 6,000 mentally ill inmates in the system was inadequate, and ordered it to do more.
The ACLU represented the state Protection and Advocacy Services Commission in the class action lawsuit that was filed in 2008. The commission advocates for the rights of the disabled.
Pratt ruled that by simply locking mentally ill prisoners up in their cells without adequate treatment, the state system was violating the inmates' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
In a report both sides filed with the court in April, the prison agency said it was exploring options including increasing staff and space for care, perhaps at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, but cost estimates had been higher than expected. It said the changes would be phased in over several years. The report did not cite a figure for the cost.
"However, at this point the plan appears to be largely aspirational," ACLU legal director Ken Falk said in a motion a filed last month. It said the DOC's last report "has no detail whatsoever about the plan."
Kara Brooks, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Pence, referred questions to the Department of Correction, which had no comment. The attorney general's office, which defends state agencies in court, had no comment beyond providing court documents.
About a quarter of the inmates in the Indiana Department of Correction are mentally ill, but the state's two mental health units have room for only about 250 patients.
Advocates say the number of mentally ill people in prison has risen over the years as states have cut budgets for treatment.
Josh Sprunger, executive director for the Indiana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said many mentally ill people end up in prison because they can't get treatment outside, either because they can't afford it or it just isn't available. Sprunger estimated that about 300,000 people in Indiana have serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, but only about half of them are able to get treatment.
"If they can't afford it, they're doing without anything. They're going to ERs the most part if they can get there," Sprunger said. Many, he said, loop through homelessness, emergency rooms and prison or jails, and then end up back out on the street to begin the cycle all over again.