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Idaho Places Some Psychiatric Patients in Prison, Despite Warnings

Idaho will soon be the last state in the nation to legally sanction the practice of imprisoning patients who are “dangerously mentally ill,” but who are not criminals, a practice that dates back decades, despite warnings over and over that its law fails mental health patients by sending them to a cell block, ProPublica reports. The most recent warning came this year when Idaho’s corrections and health and welfare directors wrote that the practice was a problem “not only because of our lack of appropriate levels of care for this population but because the treatment violates the patients’ civil rights.” Civilly committed patients with the most severe symptoms often face confinement in small cells, approximately the size of a parking space, for up to 23 to 24 hours a day. Advocate Marilyn Sword said prisons burden patients with “the double stigma of being mentally ill and then being placed in a maximum security unit at the penitentiary."


Psychiatrists and legal scholars commissioned by SAMHSA, the federal government’s main mental health agency, say it shouldn’t happen, period. In a 2019 report prepared for the agency that describes “principles for law and practice” in treating mental illness, the authors wrote, “Unless already incarcerated for a criminal offense, or facing criminal charges … no person who has been committed should be placed in a correctional facility for treatment services.” According to psychiatrists and researchers, forced solitude can exacerbate conditions for people with profound mental illness, making them lash out more. Megan Schuller, legal director for the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said Idaho may also be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and should invest in community-based care that keeps people from needing a secure facility. “The bottom line is, you’re imprisoning people for having a mental health condition — for the manifestations of that condition,” Schuller said. “And that is just absolutely not equal treatment to how we treat any other type of health condition or even mental disability.”

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