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Maryland prisons sued over use of solitary confinement on the seriously mentally ill

A new federal lawsuit claims that Maryland prisons are violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment by putting incarcerated people with serious mental illness into extended solitary confinement, where their symptoms often worsen.

The suit, brought by the advocacy group Disability Rights Maryland, asks a judge to halt the use of solitary confinement on people with severe mental illness and to require a corrective action plan that would include an expert monitor.

The complaint also alleges that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is flouting the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying mentally ill prisoners access to regular prison services while they are in confinement.

“We continue to see firsthand the harm to Maryland’s incarcerated persons with serious mental illness, despite promised reforms,” said Luciene Parsley, the legal director for Disability Rights Maryland, in a news release.

A spokesperson for DPSCS said the department’s legal counsel had not yet seen the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland on Thursday. The complaint has not yet been served, but The Daily Record included a copy of the document in its emailed request for comment.

The complaint includes examples of prisoners with serious mental illness who stayed in solitary confinement for hundreds or even more than a thousand days. The incarcerated people are not named in the lawsuit but are identified by their initials.

Disability Rights Maryland interviewed over 150 people with serious mental illness who were being held in “segregation,” another term for solitary confinement, and reviewed thousands of pages of records, according to the complaint.

Individuals who are being held in disciplinary or administrative segregation are generally held “in cells that are approximately the size of a parking space for, on average, twenty-two hours a day or more,” the group wrote.

People held in segregation are sometimes double-celled, meaning they must spend nearly all of their time in close quarters with another inmate. They are permitted to have limited outdoor recreation time, often in outdoor cages that keep them separated from the general population, according to the complaint.

The complaint includes several examples of people in segregation who received outdoor recreation time on just over half of the days they spent in solitary confinement, though prison policies call for five one-hour recreation periods per week.

Under these conditions, medical experts say, the symptoms of severe mental illness can get worse.

“Some individuals with serious mental illness decompensate while in segregation such that they rarely leave their cells,” Disability Rights Maryland wrote. “As an example, records of one individual, W.C., show that he only took 69 total showers and came out of his cell for recreation only 5 days out of nearly 1,500 days in segregation.”

DPSCS reports show that the department placed 812 people with serious mental illness in segregated housing during 2019, the most recent year for which a report is available. That figure represents more than a third of the total incarcerated population with serious mental illness.

The complaint alleges that the department is discriminating against people with severe mental illness by placing them in segregation at higher rates than prisoners without mental illness. In 2019, the department reported, only 19.1% of prisoners without serious mental illness were placed in segregation.

The department also doesn’t require staff to consider if an incarcerated person’s behavior is caused by serious mental illness before placing that person in disciplinary segregation, according to the complaint.

“For some individuals, a deterioration of mental health results in their being less able to abide by prison rules and they accrue additional infractions, which extends their time in segregation,” Disability Rights Maryland wrote. “It is a vicious cycle.”

Disability Rights Maryland also claims that the department does not provide adequate mental health services for people in segregated housing, in part because of serious staffing shortages.

“The lack of mental health services contributes to an overreliance on segregation as a means
of managing persons with serious mental illness,” the group wrote.

The number of seriously mentally ill people in segregated housing jumped from 230 in 2018 to 812 in 2019.

Disability Rights Maryland has also worked with the department to raise awareness of these concerns, according to the complaint. Despite promises to change, DPSCS has not modified the use of segregation housing and is showing “deliberate indifference” toward people with serious mental illness, the complaint contends.