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Lawsuit: Ohio fails to help mentally ill parolees


FEBRUARY 12, 2010

Lawsuit: Ohio fails to help mentally ill parolees

The following appeared February 12, 2010 on Cincinnati Fox19. View the contents below, or on Fox19's Web site.

Ohio is violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates by releasing them without proper access to follow-up care, a prisoners' rights group alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Nine former inmates said in the lawsuit the state was making it harder to meet the conditions of their release by not adequately helping them obtain housing, food stamps, Medicaid, disability benefits and other assistance.

The suit says inmates with mental illness often are released into communities that have few services for psychiatric disorders and prisoners are often not assigned to meet a doctor for months after their release.

The result is a revolving door that leads to mentally ill inmates returning to prison at a much higher rate than other inmates, raising concerns about public safety and the expense to taxpayers of re-incarcerating the individuals, according to the suit filed by the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center.
 

FEBRUARY 12, 2010

Lawsuit: Ohio fails to help mentally ill parolees

The following appeared February 12, 2010 on Cincinnati Fox19. View the contents below, or on Fox19's Web site.

Ohio is violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates by releasing them without proper access to follow-up care, a prisoners' rights group alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Nine former inmates said in the lawsuit the state was making it harder to meet the conditions of their release by not adequately helping them obtain housing, food stamps, Medicaid, disability benefits and other assistance.

The suit says inmates with mental illness often are released into communities that have few services for psychiatric disorders and prisoners are often not assigned to meet a doctor for months after their release.

The result is a revolving door that leads to mentally ill inmates returning to prison at a much higher rate than other inmates, raising concerns about public safety and the expense to taxpayers of re-incarcerating the individuals, according to the suit filed by the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

"This is a very vulnerable, very ill population," said Bess Okum, a staff attorney at the center. "We have a responsibility to deal with this population in a humane manner."

The lawsuit, which names the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Department of Mental Health, seeks to force the state to address the alleged deficiencies. One in every five inmates in Ohio prisons is being treated for mental illness, or nearly 10,000 of the state's 50,000 prisoners, Julie Walburn, a prisons department spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

She said the agency hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment. A message was left with the state Mental Health Department. The prisons department requires mentally ill inmates to be referred to a Mental Health Department social worker.

The state's inmate release plan also requires the prison to help inmates who will be homeless figure out what to do and help prisoners with disabilities apply for government benefits. The plan includes ways to help inmates apply for Medicaid but does not mention food stamps. Walburn said the prison wouldn't know before an inmate is released if he's eligible for food stamps. A parole officer helps offenders contact social service agencies when needed after release, she said.

Okum said inmates also are covered by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which makes them potentially eligible for a broad array of services. Similar lawsuits have been filed in recent years involving state prisons and jails in New Mexico, New York and Chicago.

A 2007 lawsuit now in settlement negotiations alleges the state of New York released inmates with psychiatric problems from the structured environment of prison onto the streets of New York City "with little to no preparation."

Caring for mentally ill inmates on parole is a problem around the country and reflects the way such inmates are mishandled by the criminal justice system, said Andrew Penn, senior staff attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

The key is making sure the mentally ill have access to services that could keep them from entering prison to begin with and keep them from returning if they are jailed, Penn said. One Ohio inmate, identified only as "Anthony G.," has a lengthy history of mental illness and has been in and out of institutions most of his life, the suit said.

He was released recently from Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima with no plans for dealing with his treatment, nor did he get any help applying for Medicaid, food stamps or disability, according to the suit. He was arrested shortly afterward for threatening people at a Cincinnati food bank.

"With no arrangements for appropriate supportive housing, it is likely that Anthony will be released once again to an emergency shelter," the lawsuit said. "Without benefits, mental health treatment or resources to meet his basic needs, Anthony will struggle to survive in the chaotic shelter environment."