Washington State Penitentiary facing lawsuit for violating rights of mentally ill inmates

Washington State Penitentiary facing lawsuit for violating rights of mentally ill inmates
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Inmates who need mental health treatment in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla do not have access to drug and alcohol treatment and other rehabilitative programs and are generally confined in the same custody level as those on death row, according to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Washington.

The more restrictive custody level, called "close custody," may also be assigned to inmates with known gang affiliations. Close custody is the second most restrictive status in the prison.

Yet, inmates with mental illnesses, who otherwise pose no threat and qualify for the less restrictive "minimum" or "medium" custody levels, are locked in "close custody" because of their illness, the lawsuit states, which is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The point here is that these people have followed the rules and done what they're supposed to be doing," says Rachael Seevers, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington. "Yet they're still living in this custodial setting that should be reserved for people with behavioral issues and security concerns."

Seevers says DRW began investigating in 2016 after receiving complaints from inmates. Since then, the organization has met with the Department of Corrections officials in an attempt to resolve the issue, but the two sides could not reach an agreement.

Seevers remains hopeful and says she looks forward to working with DOC moving forward.

A prepared statement from a Department of Corrections spokesman also reflects a willingness to search for a solution. It reads in part: "Both Corrections and DRW actively seek positive change in the lives of Washingtonians and strive to improve conditions, treatment and services for those re-entering our communities. Much has been, and can continue to be, accomplished through cooperative and productive discussions between the two agencies."

In November 2017, 70 inmates were assigned minimum or medium custody, yet were held in close custody conditions because they needed mental health treatment, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit cites several clients by their initials only, at least one of whom is a sex offender, but does not have access to recommended treatment or programs because of a mental illness.

In close custody, inmates are locked in their cells for up to 16 hours per day and have less access to recreation and educational programming. They also have fewer job opportunities, the lawsuit states.

"It's programming that someone has determined that these people are in need of and will, in theory, make them safer when they're released," Seevers says. "But they can't access it."

An inmate's custody level is initially determined by an assessment that considers the person's sentence, criminal history, infraction and institutional history, programming needs and mental health.

The DRW lawsuit says that Washington state offenders who need mental health treatment are generally housed in one of two special units at the facilities in Walla Walla or in the Monroe Correctional Complex. The special unit in Monroe has accommodations for all custody levels (maximum, close, medium and minimum). The special unit in Walla Walla only has close custody, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks the court to order DOC to stop its practice of assigning custody level according to a person's mental health.