California corrections officials unveiled sweeping new policies house the mentally ill in specially designed units, provide greater time out of their cells and offer vastly increased treatment for the ill prisoners, reported the Sacramento Bee.
The new policies dramatically alter the manner in which tens of thousands of state prison inmates are to be treated, and are designed to reduce the number of prisoner suicides and deaths.
The new policies call for the creation of short-term and long-term housing units where mentally ill inmates will have access to regular psychiatric care, as well as exercise and recreational equipment and greatly increased time out of their cells, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.
The policies are designed to get roughly 2,450 mentally ill inmates out of solitary confinement cells where they have little access to other human beings or the ability to exercise outside, leading to further deterioration of their emotional and mental stability. Lawyers for the inmates have fought for years to improve conditions for their clients, many of whom end up in ultra-secure housing as punishment for violations stemming from their mental illnesses and an inability to control their actions and understand the consequences. Corrections officials could not give an estimate on the cost of the changes.
There are about 30,000 inmates considered to have a mental illness among the 116,000 housed in the state’s 34 adult prisons. The new policies are designed to discard a culture in which mental health staffers felt their concerns for the patients often were ignored and their instructions often overruled by custody staff in the name of security.
Inmate lawyers say the harsh conditions their clients have sometimes been subjected to exacerbate their illnesses. The new policies are aimed at avoiding that outcome by offering secure, standalone units where mentally ill inmates do not have to interact with the general population and can have more freedom of movement and more regular care.
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