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Three nonprofit advocacy groups assisted pro bono by Manhattan’s Davis Polk & Wardwell on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit accusing New York state of denying mentally ill inmates appropriate care. The lawsuit, Disability Advocates Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health, alleges that the Office of Mental Health and the Department of Correctional Services have displayed such a deliberate indifference to the needs of mentally ill prisoners that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is routinely violated. It alleges that the state’s inability or unwillingness to address prisoners’ mental health needs results in a deterioration of their condition, sometimes to the point of suicide. Although other litigation has been commenced on behalf of individual prisoners, this is apparently the first to take on the prison system as a whole. It underscores the difficulty, both legally and penalogically, of dealing with a prison population that is increasingly recognized as prone to mental illness. “This is a system-wide program, and it has to be addressed system wide,” said Nina Loewenstein, a staff attorney with Disability Advocates in Albany, N.Y. Loewenstein said that the New York State prison population has tripled over the last 20 years, with a corresponding increase in prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses. Yet mental health staff and other resources have failed to keep pace with the increase, she said. Loewenstein is co-counsel on the complaint, along with: Sarah Kerr of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society; Betsy Sterling, associate director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York; and Jennifer H. Reardon of Davis Polk & Wardwell. Plaintiffs claim that at least 16,000 of the state’s 67,000 prisoners suffer from significant mental illnesses. However, they said that too often the prison system responds to mental illness by placing inmates in special housing or other disciplinary confinements. They contend that problem inmates with psychiatric illnesses are often isolated, and that isolation and “near total lack of human contact” exacerbates their condition and results in a “cycle of torment” for prisoners who are incapable of conforming to prison regimen. “The stringent conditions of isolated confinement are simply inhumane,” said Kerr. “They cause mentally ill prisoners to psychiatrically deteriorate and contribute to a significant number of prisoner suicides.” SUPREME COURT CASES The complaint alleges that for each year from 1998 through 2001, between 30 percent and 50 percent of the system-wide suicides involved the population (about 8 percent) kept in special housing. It seeks injunctive relief in the form of additional services and resources for the psychiatric prison population. The suit alleges violations of the Eighth and 14th Amendments and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Legally, the matter is likely to turn largely on three U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), the Court found that states could be held liable for damages to an inmate who shows a “deliberate indifference” to his or her medical needs. Then, in 1982 the Court addressed the issue of non-criminals in state custody when it said in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, that authorities must be afforded the leeway to exercise their own “professional judgment.” The Court in 1994 adopted a high standard for “deliberate indifference.” In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, the justices said that prison officials may be held liable only upon a showing that they knew of a substantial risk facing inmates and failed to take reasonable remedial measures. It said the proper standard for evaluating such claims is recklessness, not mere negligence. Even under that standard, however, the plaintiffs in this case claim the state’s conduct in dealing with mentally ill prisoners falls far short of what is legally required. Officials with the Department of Correctional Services and Office of Mental Health both declined comment Tuesday. “The appropriate place for us to respond to a lawsuit is the courtroom,” said James Flateau of Correctional Services. U.S. District Judge Gerard E. Lynch of the Southern District of New York has been assigned the case.

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