(CN) - A federal judge approved a settlement that prohibits Massachusetts from placing inmates with serious mental illness in segregation, except in certain circumstances, and expands the mental health services available to them.
In March 2007, the Disability Law Center sued the Massachusetts Department of Corrections after a number of mentally ill prisoners committed suicide.
The legal nonprofit claimed that the Department violated the prisoners' Eighth Amendment rights by subjecting mentally ill inmates to extended periods of time in segregation. Some mentally ill inmates were held in segregated confinement for years at a time, according to the Disability Law Center.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf approved a settlement agreement between the two parties, finding it to be reasonable, fair and adequate.
"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. Its reliance on Secure Treatment Units as a therapeutic alternative to confinement in segregation represents the best current practices concerning mentally ill inmates," the judge said.
Wolf continued: "Except in certain circumstances, the Agreement prohibits the placement of inmates with serious mental illness in Departmental Disciplinary Units, a form of segregation, and limits the use of other forms of segregation of inmates with serious mental illness."
In addition, "The Agreement provides that when inmates with serious mental illness are held in segregation, they will receive additional mental health services, and their status will be regularly reviewed by facility administrators and at least one mental health professional to determine whether alternatives to segregation exist. The parties assert that these measures achieve the plaintiff's main goals in bringing this case, while institutionalizing initiatives the Department has begun to implement and which have already caused a significant reduction in self-injurious behavior by inmates and harm to prison staff," Wolf said.
The Department of Corrections also agreed to pay the Disability Law Center $1.25 million in attorney's fees, although it does not thereby agree that the nonprofit is the prevailing party.