Friday, July 4, 2003

Psychiatric inmates
settle lawsuit

Defendants acquitted due to
mental illness were sent to
prison instead of the hospital

The state has agreed to pay $376,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates acquitted by reason of mental disease who were confined in prison rather than at the Hawaii State Hospital.

Preliminary approval of the settlement reached through mediation is scheduled Wednesday before visiting U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie.

Inmate Rodney Clark and seven others sued the state Public Safety and Health departments in December 1999, claiming their civil rights were violated when they were "warehoused" in penal facilities and deprived of appropriate mental health treatment for periods ranging from a couple of weeks to months. At least a couple of inmates were incarcerated for almost a year.

The primary reason, said Bruce Sherman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, was no available space at the State Hospital. He believes the state's practice occurred as far back as the late 1980s.

"The type of treatment that a lot of individuals received in prison was just reprehensible, as opposed to what they would have received at the State Hospital or medical facility," said Sherman.

He attributed part of the problem to a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against the State Hospital in 1991, resulting in federal oversight. "To comply with the consent decree, the state wrongly decided to meet that bed-space requirement by meeting that requirement in prison and putting them in (Oahu Community Correctional Center)," Sherman said.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra ruled in 2000 that the delays in transferring inmates committed to custody of the Department of Health violated their civil rights. He granted a permanent injunction in November 2001, ordering the state to transfer inmates to the State Hospital within specified time limits.

The plaintiffs -- whom Sherman estimated to be from 150 to 200 individuals -- were incarcerated between Dec. 19, 1997, and Dec. 3, 2002. They include defendants who were found unfit by the courts to go to trial, were civilly committed to the custody of the Department of Health or conditionally released from the State Hospital but subsequently arrested for violating terms of their release.

Many, if not all, according to Ezra, "are persons with developmental disabilities and/or mental retardation who are unable to assert these claims for themselves."

Sherman said but for the lawsuit, the state would have continued to incarcerate people acquitted by reason of insanity and deny them mental health treatment.

David Webber, a deputy attorney general representing the state, said the case was "a problem of insufficient resources, and that's been improved. There have been organizational and structural changes that have been made."

Under a May 29 order by Ezra, inmates acquitted of criminal charges or found unfit to go to trial and are committed to the custody of the Department of Health shall be transferred within 72 hours. Those conditionally released but subsequently arrested for violating conditions of their release shall be held no longer than 48 hours or, if on the neighbor islands, as long as it takes for them to be transported on the first available flight to Oahu.

There has been "no other case in the country that has set such a short time frame (72 hours)," Webber said. "We've been successful in carrying it out since."


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