State Prison: Progress at a Standstill

Empty cell in the Behavioral Health Unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary

Today, we stand at the half-way point in the timetable laid out to transform the treatment of prisoners with mental illness and bring conditions up to constitutional standards. Our latest progress report shows a prison falling short of meeting basic constitutional standards for inmates with serious mental health conditions.

More than three dozen men in the BHU spent an average of almost 23 hours per day confined to dark, cramped cells during the final quarter of 2017. Unless there is a dramatic shift, DOC is unlikely to meet the goals it agreed to within the time frame.

Latest Progress Report: Behind the Eleventh Door at the Halfway Point-Progress at a Standstill (April 2018)

Background

Three years ago, we went inside the Oregon State Penitentiary, and looked at the unit that houses inmates with severe mental illness. What we found was alarming. Individuals spent 23 hours a day confined in dark, stifling cells. Solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness of prisoners, and undermines their basic humanity.

We published our findings in a report (“Behind the Eleventh Door“). The Department of Corrections (DOC) signed an agreement to improve the conditions in the prison’s Behavioral Health Unit within four years. Last year, we took stock of their progress (2017 report).

BHU holding cell

Lasting Harm of Solitary Confinement

For people with serious with mental illness, isolation exacerbates their symptoms and can result in lasting harm. Prisoners with depression grow more depressed. Prisoners with anxiety grow more anxious. Prisoners with delusions have an ever-harder time trying to sort out reality. Given the enduring harm caused when solitary confinement violates people’s intrinsic human rights, many prison systems have wholly abolished the use of isolation.

Recommendations

The original vision of the Behavioral Health Unit was to create 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.

Today’s report, makes a number of recommendations. Those include:

  • Moving swiftly to end solitary confinement and isolation
  • Transferring the most acutely impaired BHU residents to a therapeutic environment
  • Quickly improving access to high quality psychiatric care

Additional Resources:

Report: Behind the Eleventh Door One Year Later: DRO’s First Annual Report – Progress to Improve Conditions at the Behavioral Health Unit of the Oregon State Penitentiary (April 2017)
Memorandum of Understanding (January 2016)
Report: Behind the Eleventh Door (2015)

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