According to a 2021 report on the adequacy of health care in Louisiana prisons, 40% of incarcerated individuals have experienced mental illness. Additionally, 20% have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Without adequate care, inmates such as these often end up in a perpetual cycle of punishment and decompensation that persists throughout their time in custody.
Recently, this issue came to light in a Louisiana federal civil rights case concerning solitary confinement and extended lockdown conditions. Here is more of the prisoner class-action lawsuit seeking better treatment for those in solitary and extended confinement.
David Wade Center Class Action Complaint
In 2018, inmates who had been housed in prolonged solitary confinement or extended lockdown in The David Wade Correctional Center in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Safety and Corrections.
The plaintiffs claim that from 2018 to 2020, The David Wade Center’s solitary confinement and extended lockdown conditions were unconstitutional. The specific allegations included descriptions of unclean and inhuman living conditions, cruelty by staff members, 23-hour confinement periods, extreme deprivation of social interaction, and non-existent mental health treatment services for those clearly in need of care. The plaintiffs requested improved mental health treatment and solitary confinement conditions rather than monetary relief. The trial concluded earlier this year, and the parties are now awaiting a verdict.
The Plaintiffs’ Expert Calls Prison Mental Health Conditions “Insufficient”
According to a recent report, in January, Dr. Kathryn Burns, the former chief psychiatrist for the Ohio State prison system, testified as an expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs. Dr. Burns related that she visited The David Wade Center in 2018 and 2019 and reviewed medical and mental health records and the center’s policies. She also interviewed 30 inmates regarding the conditions in solitary confinement.
Dr. Burns testified that the mental health services offered at the center for those in restrictive housing were "insufficient, and almost non-existent except for medication." She also stated that the provided medication "was not accurately administered, documented, or supervised."
Psychiatrist Visits Were Infrequent, Brief, Perfunctory, and Not Confidential
Dr. Burns criticized the facility's lack of timely care for those in restricted confinement.
She found that before March of 2020, inmates were only evaluated 30 days after being placed in solitary confinement and then every 90 days thereafter.
Dr. Burns stated that these examinations were not comprehensive, consisting of a basic checklist. She also testified that the interactions between prison patients and the evaluating psychiatrist were brief and perfunctory and were not being conducted privately. Dr. Burns found that many of those interviewed were not even aware they had participated in a mental health evaluation.
Patient Treatment Plans and Medication Were Inadequate
In her records review, Dr. Burns found that all of the mentally ill inmates’ “individual” treatment plans were essentially identical. The doctor questioned the practical use of “individual” plans that clearly were not created to address patients’ unique conditions and needs. She also noted that the center failed to provide counseling to mentally ill inmates and instead offered medication as the only form of treatment. Even still, her review of the center’s records revealed that the patients were missing weeks of their prescribed medications.
Mental Health Staff Lacking
Dr. Burns also found that the prison had a profound lack of trained mental health staff. She related that a facility the size of The David Wade Center (1000 inmates) should have at least one full-time psychiatrist. However, the facility’s dedicated psychiatrist only came to the center twice a month for six hours at a time. Further, as of March 2020, there were only three direct care mental health staff at the David Wade Center. Dr. Burns remarked that it’s “clear from the records that some of the mental health staff at the time were not aware of psychiatric signs and symptoms, didn’t necessarily recognize them, didn’t document them.”
Dr. Burns related that the lack of mental health care within the center has a detrimental impact on the inmates, often contributing to their becoming increasingly symptomatic and going in and out of restrictive housing. Their worsening states often led to inmates attempting to harm themselves or others. In response, these individuals had more disciplinary infractions and experienced more force by the guards.
Psychiatrist Not Present or Spending Insufficient Time with Patients
Attorneys for the Department of Corrections contended that inmates housed in the center are stable or in remission and that those placed in solitary confinement are provided with adequate treatment through medication. However, Dr. Gregory Seal, the facility’s only psychiatrist, testified that he only spent an average of 3-5 minutes with patients to diagnose them and prescribe medication. Seal indicated that he would spend approximately 10 minutes with a new patient. As mentioned above, Seal only visited the prison twice per month for about 6 hours each time. Additionally, Seal admitted that he had seen restrictive confinement prisoners who could have benefitted from psychotherapy. However, he could not recall its inclusion in any of the treatment plans for this population.
Dr. Burns commented on Dr. Seal’s availability stating that “People can’t get in to see Dr. Seal on a timely basis because he’s only there one day, every other week.” She expressed concern that with this staffing, those needing medication changes or decompensating would not be attended to for weeks or even months.
If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth
Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation, contact us or call (509) 991-7058