On Aug. 14, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, alleging that six mentally ill prisoners had been denied access to psychiatric care despite being found not guilty by reason of insanity. The plaintiffs in the case claim that this denial of health care is a violation of their 14th Amendment right to due process and is in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 605 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
According to the complaint, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, the plaintiffs — Brandon Cooper, Louis Davenport, Ron Gatlin, Kenny Swatt, Stephen Zeringue and William Pitzer — have been held in parish jails, even though there are no other criminal charges or convictions against them. Per the plaintiffs, the state does not have the bed space or capacity in its mental health system to accommodate prisoners found not guilty for reasons of insanity. Per U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1972 and 1976, a prisoner has the right to be treated for mental illness and to not be detained indefinitely because of mental incapacity.
Cooper, for example, is a 34-year-old schizophrenic who was found NGRI on two counts of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle on Feb. 14. He had been remanded to the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System, but was instead sent to the St. Tammany Parish Jail. The remaining plaintiffs — all incarcerated in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center despite being remanded to the mental health system, and all with previous histories of mental illness — were also found NGRI for offenses ranging from obscenity to aggravated battery and arson.
According to Louisiana state law, NGRI defendants in non-capital cases can be remanded to a private mental facility or to a parish jail, pending a public release hearing.
“The number of persons in the class is so numerous and in such fluctuation that joinder of all of them is impractical,” reads the complaint. “There are scores of individuals throughout the state of Louisiana who have been or will be found NGRI and committed to a mental health facility, but who remain or will remain incarcerated in a parish jail, often for months at a time.”
The lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit legal services organization Advocacy Center on behalf of the plaintiffs, with the plaintiffs being represented by Ronald Lospennato of the Advocacy Center and Katie Schwartzmann of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. An unspecified amount in damages is being sought to provide injunctive relief to prevent the state from incarcerating those with mental illnesses prior to commitment to a mental health facility and to cover attorney fees and costs.
The plaintiffs assert that they and proposed class members “have suffered or are likely to suffer deprivation of their liberty by incarceration in correctional facilities, discrimination based on their disabilities, and significant irreparable damage to their mental health.”
This case is not the first time Louisiana penal policies have been challenged. In June, it was reported that the U.S. Justice Department decided to intervene in a class action lawsuit against the State of Louisiana that alleged “abusive and unconstitutional conditions of confinement” at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans. A consent judgment on the lawsuit was approved by the court in June 2013.
In the DOJ’s September 2009 findings letter, the department found that prisoners were not protected against excessive use of force by the staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, that the prisoners failed to receive adequate medical or mental health care, that the prison failed to use adequate fire safety precautions and that the jail’s physical condition caused an unreasonable risk to the prisoners’ health and safety.
“The depth and breadth of horror stories coming out of that jail are really consistent, which is troubling,” stated Schwartzmann.
Also the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Schwartzmann was instrumental in the filing and arguing of this case.
The DOJ’s motion to intervene, she continued, “further confirms the gross neglect, sadistic rapes, and brutal beatings that have become so commonplace at Orleans Parish Prison. We hope the sheriff will stand up and finally address the abusive and inhumane conditions that have plagued the jail for far too long.”
The lawsuit cited overcrowding and a failure to properly classify prisoners as major factors behind the prison’s failure, in addition to attempts to cover up staff abuses and a lack of adequate staffing.
Despite Louisiana’s history of penal malfeasance, the story of the mentally ill under incarceration represents a broader national issue. In 2012, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, there were an estimated 356,268 inmates in the federal and state prison systems, compared to only 35,000 patients in state psychiatric hospitals.
“In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital,” according to the Treatment Advocacy Center’s April report “The Treatment of Persons With Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails.” “For example, in Ohio, 10 state prisons and two county jails each hold more mentally ill inmates than does the largest remaining state hospital.”