PORTLAND – Inmates with severe mental health conditions at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem spend an average of nearly 23 hours per day in solitary confinement, according to a report released Tuesday by Disability Rights Oregon.
The state in many cases may be violating the inmates’ constitutional rights, the nonprofit advocacy group alleged.
Isolation can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety, and many prison systems around the nation have discontinued the practice, said Elizabeth Seaberry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group.
The report recommends that the Oregon Department of Corrections end solitary confinement, transferred acutely mentally ill patients to a therapeutic environment and improve access to mental health care.
A DOC spokeswoman did not immediately return messages Tuesday from the Pamplin/EO Capital Bureau seeking a response to the report.
While located in Salem, Oregon State Penitentiary holds inmates from around the state.
More than three dozen men in the prison’s Behavioral Health Unit spent almost 23 hours a day confined to “dark, cramped cells” during the final quarter of 2017, the study showed.
The progress report follows revelations by Disability Rights Oregon two years ago that about 40 male inmates in the Behavioral Health Unit at the prison were kept in isolation and received inadequate mental health care. In some instances, prison staff members acted violently toward the inmates, according to the advocacy group.
In early 2016, DOC leaders agreed to take steps in the subsequent four years to improve the conditions for inmates in the specialized unit.
“The agreement strives to reshape this unit to live up to its original vision: an environment that’s safe for prisoners and the prison staff who work with them, where prisoners can heal through effective treatment for their mental health conditions, and where their intrinsic human dignity is safeguarded,” said Joel Greenberg, report author and staff attorney with Disability Rights Oregon.
Tuesday’s report marks the midpoint of that four-year improvement plan.
Disability Rights Oregon alleged that the corrections department is failing to ensure that inmates with mental health conditions are released from their cells for a minimum of 20 hours a week. That number is the minimum to protect inmates with mental health conditions from “cruel and unusual punishment” as defined by the Eighth Amendment.
“Unless there is a dramatic shift, DOC is unlikely to meet the goals it agreed to within the timeframe,” Greenberg said.