Little Help for Mentally Ill in Utah Jails

     SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – Dozens of mentally ill inmates incompetent to stand trial are denied psychiatric care in Utah and “must languish” in jails for months, often in solitary confinement, attorneys claim in a class action.
     Two of the mentally ill plaintiffs have been in jail for 5 months or more on shoplifting charges, without court-ordered treatment. One of them, who is 71, is still in jail for shoplifting though a court ordered him released in June, the attorneys say.
     The nonprofit Disability Law Center and three people sued Utah, its Department of Human Services, its Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, the Utah State Hospital, and the directors of the three agencies, on Tuesday in Federal Court.
     The plaintiffs claim the state hospital did not provide “competency restoration treatment” within a “reasonable period of time” – in fact, “for years” – despite court orders.
     Inmates declared incompetent are placed on waiting lists “for months,” and stay in city or county jails until beds at the hospital’s forensic facility open, the attorneys say.
     It’s not uncommon for inmates to be jailed for six months or more “after issuance of the order committing them for treatment until defendant USH accepts custody.”
     In some cases, mentally ill inmates are jailed awaiting treatment for longer than the time to which they were sentenced. They are “frequently” put into solitary confinement, “which only serves to aggravate the inmates’ mental illness,” the attorneys say.
     “The situation faced by these inmates has now reached a state of crisis,” the complaint states. “Defendant USH’s waitlist has doubled each year for the past three years, with wait times increasing from 30 days to 180 days over the same period. In 2013, there were 15 individuals with mental illness on the list. Today, there are at least 56.”
     Inmates “languish” in county jails, where they “receive little or no meaningful treatment.” People with severe mental illness are particularly vulnerable to bullying and abuse, and it is no remedy to put them into solitary confinement, though that’s what happens, the attorneys say.
     “Defendants’ failure to provide timely treatment forces plaintiffs and the members of the class they represent to wait months in county jails for court-ordered competency services that defendants are statutorily required to provide,” the complaint states.
     Plaintiff S.B., 27, was deemed incomplete to stand trial on shoplifting charges, a third-degree felony, in March. The court ordered that he receive competency restoration treatment, but the Utah State Hospital sought extensions for three competency review hearings due to its waiting list, according to the complaint. S.B. is still in a county jail.
     Plaintiff A.U., 34, was deemed incompetent to stand trial for parole violations in April. Despite a court order in June that he be released from jail on GPS monitoring, pending available space at USH, he too remains locked up.
     A judge found plaintiff S.W., 71, mentally ill and ordered him to receive “treatment, care, custody and security that is adequate and appropriate” to his condition. He was charged in May with shoplifting. He’s still in jail due to the hospital’s long waiting list.
     Department of Human Services spokeswoman Heather Barnum told Courthouse News there will be a “thorough investigation” of the claims.
     “Our mission at the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and the Utah State Hospital is to promote health, treat illness and support recovery. We continuously review the quality of our care, prevention and treatment services to fulfill this mission,” Barnum said Tuesday.
     “The Utah Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the suit filed today by the Disability Law Center and will conduct a thorough investigation of all claims.”
     The Disability Law Center could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
     The plaintiffs seek class certification and an injunction against violations of the state and federal constitutions.
     Aaron Kinikmi with the Disability Law Center is assisted by Alan Sullivan with Snell & Wilmer, both of Salt Lake City.

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