Lawsuit calls solitary confinement of mentally ill Delaware inmates ‘cruel’

 (Steve Ruark/AP)

(Steve Ruark/AP)

A federal lawsuit claims the Delaware Department of Correction practice of holding mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Last month, President Obama spoke about the dangers of isolating inmates for extended periods of time. He told those gathered at the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia, “Social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent.”

The ACLU of Delaware and the Community Legal Aid Society are using that same argument in their federal lawsuit against the Department of Correction, especially when it comes to mentally ill inmates. “People with mental illnesses have been warehoused in solitary confinement for years on end,” said Dan Atkins, executive director of CLASI. “They are isolated from almost all contact with other human beings and receive virtually no meaningful mental health treatment.”

Of the roughly 300 prisoners being held in solitary at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, 100 are on the DOC’s mental health roster, according to Atkins. Sixty of those 100 have serious mental illnesses. “Isolation under these conditions exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness,” Atkins said. 

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The suit claims the inmates in solitary are not provided adequate mental health treatment. Atkins said the treatment they receive involves a check-in with a mental health worker who visits the isolation cell and asks how an inmate is doing. He said they’re also given work sheets to complete in their cell, even though some are not fully literate.

“Someday, the vast majority of these inmates will be released back into the community. How are these individuals or the community at large served by such cruel and destructive policies?” Atkins asked.

The lawsuit names DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe as the sole defendant. It calls for the inmates to have better access to true mental health treatment as well as more time  out of solitary confinement to interact with others.

In response, the Dept. of Correction issued a statement saying they’ve been working with the ACLU and CLASI on this issue in recent months. The department statement indicates the DOC leadership’s support for an impartial expert to examine policies on its use of solitary confinement. DOC leaders hope a recommendation for best-practices could be made by the end of the year.

“We believe that continuing the constructive engagement among all interested parties that is resulting in tangible reform is the best way forward, instead of protracted litigation that would divert limited state funds from programs and treatment to attorneys and legal fees,” said Commissioner Coupe in a written statement.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal