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Sunday, February 12, 2012

For Mentally Ill Inmates, Health Care Behind Bars is Often Out of Reach

By Elizabeth Chuck, msnbc.com

A man who was declared suicidal by a New Mexico jail and alleges he was then left to rot in solitary confinement for nearly two years is just one of many former inmates who say they were denied essential mental health services while incarcerated at that detention center, which like others across the country has struggled with how to treat the mentally ill.

Stephen Slevin, 57, made headlineslast week when a jury awarded him $22 million after he alleged inhumane treatment in the Dona Ana County Detention Center following his arrest in August 2005 on charges of driving while under the influence and possession of a stolen vehicle.

But a search of Dona Ana County court records reveals the detention center was also hit with a class-action lawsuit six months prior to Slevins', in which 13 former inmates alleged their constitutional rights to mental health care had been "continually and persistently ignored."

The lawsuit was settled in 2010, with a judgment of $400,000 for the plaintiffs and a commitment from the county to change its practices.

According to criminal justice experts, many other jails and prisons have struggled to adequately handle mentally ill inmates. Few areas of the country, they say, have the money and resources and staff to handle such a challenging population.

"The Supreme Court has established that you have a constitutional right to a basic level of adequate health care, which now includes mental health care," Thomas Hafemeister, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told msnbc.com. "They've recognized that there tends to be limited resources in this setting. As long as a qualified professional has examined the inmate and exercised his or her judgment as to what needs to be done, that's all that is required."

'Cruel and unusual'

But Hafemeister, who has written about alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system for the mentally ill, explained that the definition of a "qualified professional" is a loose one.

"Some would argue for inmates, all that is required is medication," he said, meaning anyone with a medical degree, from a physician to a psychiatrist, could be considered qualified.

"Often it's very expensive. They're only willing to come in for an hour a week, and they zoom through very quickly. It can be a very cursory examination," Hafemeister said.

Slevin was detained for 22 months, released in June of 2007 without ever having been given a trial. By the time he was freed, he was deemed mentally incompetent, and his charges were dropped.

The rest of the story is here.