Ind. prison system faces difficult task in caring for mentally ill

Has much changed since the nation’s high court took a case about the constitutional rights of prisoners in the 1980s?


Madeline Buckley
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in 1987 that running a prison is an “inordinately difficult undertaking.”

Has much changed since the nation’s high court took a case about the constitutional rights of prisoners in the 1980s? Experts tend to say not much, especially regarding the enormous task of caring for mentally ill inmates amid shrinking resources.

“The Department of Correction is in a bad position. It is not designed to treat the mentally ill,” said Ken Falk, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana. “But the prisons are the primary mental health centers in the United States.”

Right now in Indiana, about 17 percent of state prisoners are diagnosed with a mental illnesses of varying degrees, according to numbers from the Department of Correction. Nationwide, studies suggest almost half of all prisoners in federal, state and county prisons and jails suffer from some type of mental illness.

A 2006 Bureau of Justice study estimated that almost 50 percent of statewide prisoners show symptoms of a mental illness, about 40 percent of federal prisoners, and about 60 percent of inmates in county jails.

Robin Eutsey’s son, Patrick Whetstone, was one of the prison system’s mentally ill. The 25-year-old suffered from bipolar disorder and stayed for a time in a special needs unit in Wabash Valley Correctional Center.

In the end, another mentally ill inmate, Luis Silveria, tortured and killed him.

Whetstone’s in-custody death in 2009 was one of 95 that year in the Indiana prison system.

Five years later, some facets have changed, while the overriding challenge of housing these inmates remain the same.

An intensive unit

The ACLU has sued the Indiana Department of Correction twice regarding the segregation of mentally ill inmates, arguing that it is cruel and unusual.

First it sued in 2005 and later in 2008. A U.S. District judge in southern Indiana found in 2012 that the state prison system’s practice regarding segregating mentally ill inmates was unconstitutional.

Eutsey’s lawsuit noted the lawsuits filed before her son’s death, but the complaint argued that Luis Silveria was a dangerous exception who staff should never have placed in a cell with Whetstone.

Is there a solution to the two opposing needs? Maybe.

“There’s always some balancing involved if you do have to separate somebody because they pose danger to other inmates,” said Joel Dvoskin, a psychologist who is chairman of the Governor’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Council in Nevada. “Sometimes that means a judgment call.”

Partially in response to the ACLU segregation lawsuits, the Department of Correction developed a new, intensive unit meant to treat the most severe cases of the mentally ill with the hope of balancing humane treatment with the safety of the inmates and those around them.

The New Castle Stabilization Unit houses 118 inmates.

“There is a more intense treatment team there,” said Mark Levenhagen, executive director for mental health services at the DOC. “They are engaged in therapy throughout the day.”

The inmates generally aren’t segregated, but they are under strict custody conditions and supervision.

The unit is more intensive than the Special Needs Unit at Wabash Valley, where Silveria killed Whetstone. That unit is for mentally ill inmates who are nearly ready to return to the general population.

The DOC also has a mental health unit in Pendleton that falls in between the units at Wabash Valley and New Castle. The unit in Pendleton is more stringent than Wabash Valley but less so than New Castle.

About 400 prisoners are housed in the three mental health units.

“The overriding principle of the ACLU suit and our suit are the same: Act in best interest of each prisoner,” said South Bend attorney Charles Rice, who handled Eutsey’s case.

‘Better prisons for fewer people’

But with anywhere from almost quarter to a half of prisoners showing symptoms of mental illnesses, the prisons face the challenge of being the primary mental health care provider for thousands.

Statewide, Indiana employs 140 mental health care workers, ranging from doctors, to clinicians to nurses, Levenhagen said.

They serve about 6,000 inmates who are diagnosed with a mental illness, from the relatively minor to the severe.

Battles with funding and resources strain the system, experts say.

“Prison isn’t everybody’s first choice of a place to work,” said Dvoskin, who studies mental health issues in prisons. “There are not enough doctors, not enough psychiatrists, not enough of everything.”

Levenhagen said the state closed down a number of state-run mental health hospitals in the past 30 years, meaning a greater influx of people needing help end up in prison.

Dvoskin said he believes the root of the problem is an “incarceration frenzy” in the United States, which is has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

A solution, he said, is imprisoning fewer people, saving the space for those that pose a threat to public safety, while finding other ways to help and rehabilitate minor offenders.

“We should run better prisons for fewer people,” he said. 

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