Idaho Keeps Some Psych Patients in Prison, Ignoring Decades of Warnings About the Practice


From ProPublica: “One night in March 1976, a young advocate for people with ‘mental illness’ arrived at the Idaho statehouse with a warning.

Marilyn Sword urged lawmakers not to ratify a system that would ultimately lock away some of Idaho’s most debilitated psychiatric patients in the tiny, concrete cells of a maximum security prison — a kind of solitary confinement with no trial, no conviction and often no charges.

Idaho didn’t have any psychiatric hospitals secure enough for patients whose break with reality made them lash out in fear, anger or confusion. What it did have was a maximum security prison.

Sword said putting prison officials in charge, as lawmakers were contemplating, could violate the civil rights of patients committed by the court for hospitalization. She said it would burden them with ‘the double stigma of being “mentally ill” and then being placed in a maximum security unit at the penitentiary,’ minutes of the meeting show.

Idaho leaders plunged forward with the legislation anyway.

In the five decades since, Idaho has continued to ignore warnings over and over that its law fails mental health patients by sending them to a cell block, ProPublica found in a review of legislative records and news clips.

‘I think it’s really tragic that it has been this many years, and we’re still at this point,’ Sword, now 77, said in an interview this summer.

Governors, lawmakers and state officials have been put on notice at least 14 times since 1954 that Idaho needs a secure mental health unit that is not in a prison.

They also have been told publicly at least eight times since 1974 that Idaho may be violating people’s civil rights by locking them away without a conviction, and that the state could be sued for it.

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.’

Idaho will soon be the last state to legally sanction the practice of imprisoning patients who are ‘dangerously mentally ill,’ to use Idaho’s parlance, but who are not criminals. New Hampshire is phasing it out.

State leaders repeatedly have defended Idaho’s approach — in 1977, 2007 and 2017 — as a temporary measure while the state worked on a stand-alone clinical unit or a permanent secure wing in a hospital. Those facilities never materialized.

At the start of this year, the Legislature refused to use any of Idaho’s $1.4 billion surplus to build a $24 million mental health facility for patients, opting to continue holding them without charges at the state’s maximum security prison south of Boise.

In placing patients who have not been charged with crimes in prison instead of in a treatment facility, Idaho is at odds with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Holding prisoners with mental illness in prolonged seclusion also goes against recommendations of the American Psychiatric Association, the American College of Correctional Physicians, federal courts and the United Nations.”

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