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Maryland prisons unconstitutionally placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, lawsuit claims

Mentally ill inmates at Maryland’s prisons are being held in solitary confinement, exacerbating their illnesses and violating their constitutional rights against being submitted to cruel and unusual punishment, according to a federal lawsuit.

Filed last month on behalf of several unnamed defendants by the nonprofit organization Disability Rights of Maryland, the suit claims that state prisons provide inmates “grossly inadequate” mental health services, overly rely on solitary confinement and prisoner segregation to manage inmates with mental illnesses and don’t give those prisoners enough time outside solitary confinement.

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In one instance, the suit claims that an inmate identified as “C.C.” spent nearly a year in 2019 in segregated confinement awaiting a psychiatric evaluation.

“While C.C. was advised that counseling was effective for his disorder, he was also told that counseling was not currently available at the correctional facility,” the lawsuit claims. “For nearly five months, C.C. was not offered an individual appointment with the psychology department staff, despite continuing to raise concerns related to his mental health to the defendants.”

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A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the state’s jails and prisons, declined to comment.

The lawsuit claims that the state’s prison system has placed several inmates with known mental illnesses in segregated confinement for roughly a year and a half to nearly 2 1/2 years.

The lawsuit also gave examples of three inmates who had a required daily hour of recreation on no more than 60% of the days they were in segregation.

In addition, the suit says the department has “several prisons that provide programs for individuals with mental illness” that could be modified or replicated to aid those in segregation.

The Maryland prison system is exacerbating mental health illnesses and is in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit reads. The group claims it has raised these and other issues with the department since 2016.

In another instance, the lawsuit claims that an inmate at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Allegany County identified as “L.P.” — who reported hearing voices, isolated himself in his cell for long periods and would refuse to eat or communicate at times — “was not identified as seriously mentally ill” by the state prison system.

“Only after years of segregation, and advocacy by Disability Rights Maryland, was he identified as seriously mentally ill,” the lawsuit reads. “Ultimately, he was transferred to Patuxent Institution for more intensive mental health services, where he currently remains.”

“Defendants systematically fail to provide the required mental health care to individuals with serious mental health illness in segregation,” it continues, adding that the conditions show “defendants are deliberately indifferent to the conditions and health care needs of individuals with serious mental illness in segregation.”

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 18 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeks to require the department to submit a “Corrective Action Plan” to be reviewed and approved by the court and the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Also, they want the court to oversee compliance with the plan.

The use of solitary confinement in prisons and its effect on mental health have become a growing topic of concern for psychology experts who say the practice has a negative impact on inmates.

A 2019 study of people released from North Carolina prisons from 2000 through 2015 found that inmates who’d previously been in solitary confinement were 78% more likely to die from suicide in the first year than those inmates who weren’t and 127% more likely to die from an opioid overdose within the first two weeks of release.

Maryland’s detention systems have been the target of advocates who say the state overly relies on incarceration when it comes to housing the mentally ill population, both at the adult and juvenile level.

The Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees the state’s juvenile detention centers, has called for an increase in the number of inpatient psychiatric beds for youth as staffers have struggled to handle situations with mentally ill youth when beds are not readily available.

The state is moving forward with plans to build a large new mental illness and substance abuse treatment center in Baltimore for certain nonviolent offenders.

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