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Some Mentally Ill Federal Inmates Receive Little to No Treatment, Audit Finds

7/12/2017
 
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Investigators see wide disconnect between policy, practice after Obama administration raised standards in 2014

By Beth Reinhard 
July 12, 2017 6:09 p.m. ET

Federal prisons keep some mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day, sometimes for years, according to an audit released Wednesday by the in-house watchdog for the Justice Department.
 
The report by the Office of the Inspector General comes 18 months after the Obama administration hailed new restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for federal inmates, including the mentally ill, as a model for state correctional facilities. Former President Barack Obama barred solitary confinement for the handful of juveniles in federal prison and called the excessive or unnecessary isolation of adult inmates “an affront to our common humanity.”
 
However, federal government investigators found a wide disconnect between policy and practice, bolstering longstanding complaints by civil-rights activists that some prisons amount to human warehouses. Cumulative time in solitary confinement isn’t tracked, and many mentally ill inmates are receiving insufficient treatment or none at all, the report said.
 
One prison psychologist described solitary confinement to investigators this way: “You have no contact, you don't speak to anybody and it’s a form of torture, on some level.”
 
In a response to a draft of the report, federal prison officials, without directly addressing the problems, agreed with all 15 of the audit’s recommendations, which included clear policies for solitary confinement, tracking of cumulative time in single cells, and careful monitoring of the mentally ill.
Amid a national debate over the economic and social costs of incarceration, a number of states have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Colorado, Maine and Pennsylvania, for example, have barred the practice for inmates with serious mental illness in their state prisons. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation last year that would have allowed solitary confinement only as a last resort and not at all for the mentally ill.
 
State prisons house more than half of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 
In one of the audit’s most notable findings about federal inmates, only 3% receive regular treatment for mental illness, though a recent government study said the proportion with a history of mental health problems is about 19%.
 
The Obama administration raised the standards for treating mentally ill inmates in 2014, but the number of inmates receiving regular mental health treatment dropped more than 30% the following year, according to the audit. The government’s investigators concluded that prisons downgraded inmates’ mental illness assessments because they didn’t have enough staff or resources to meet the higher standards.
 
Currently about 7% of the 154,082 inmates in government-run prisons are in restrictive housing. For 22 hours a day or more, those inmates are separated from the general prison population—sometimes alone in a single cell—because of disciplinary problems or for their own protection. Most of the inmates currently in restrictive housing have been there for 90 days or less.
 
Many researchers say long periods of isolation can have damaging and long-lasting psychological effects, particularly on the mentally ill, making it more likely these inmates will struggle when they return to society and commit more crimes.
 
The review didn’t include prisons run by for-profit operators, which a previous inspector general report found were more dangerous than government-run prisons. Prison contractors disputed those findings.
 
The problems associated with incarcerating the mentally ill could worsen as the Justice Department faces $1.1 billion in budget cuts. A request last year by the Bureau of Prisons for 130 new mental health professionals was turned down, the report said, and no new funding is expected in the coming fiscal year.
 
Even when mental health positions are included in the budget, they are not necessarily filled, the audit found. Mentally ill inmates can spend years on waiting lists to move from a prison to a residential treatment program, according to the report.
 
Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t made public remarks on solitary confinement since taking office earlier this year, and he did not comment Wednesday on the audit.
 
Asked about solitary confinement during his confirmation hearings, the former Alabama senator and federal prosecutor said, “I believe that we should closely evaluate the studies and evidence and make the best determination about how to handle what can be a dangerous prison population in a way that is both constitutional and effective.”
 
In general, Mr. Sessions has prioritized tougher enforcement in what he describes as an effort to curb an increase in violent crime. Under more aggressive prosecution of drug and immigration offenses, the federal prison population is expected to grow after a few years of decline.
 
Federal prisons don’t officially use the term “solitary confinement” even though the practice exists, the report said, further complicating any potential efforts at an overhaul.

 
Write to Beth Reinhard at beth.reinhard@wsj.com