Mentally ill inmates sue Ohio prisons

By Dan Horn
February 10, 2010

Mentally ill prisoners in Ohio are more likely to get into trouble and end up back in prison after they are released because state officials turn them loose without the follow-up care they need, a federal lawsuit claimed Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, asked a judge to order the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Ohio Department of Mental Health to provide the care necessary to help keep mentally ill offenders from returning to prison.

Advocates for prisoners and the mentally ill said they are suing to help not only the released prisoners, but also the taxpayers who must pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep them locked up when they commit new crimes and are sent back to prison.

They say the cost of providing treatment to a mentally ill person in the community is about $7,400 a year, compared to the $25,000 a year it costs to incarcerate them.

But instead of treatment, the lawsuit claims, ex-convicts with mental problems get $65 to $75, a bus ticket and two weeks of medication upon their release. The suit said many of those former inmates soon move into homeless shelters or drug-infested neighborhoods, where their mental health quickly deteriorates.

“Dumping prisoners with mental illness at homeless shelters creates a revolving door phenomenon,” said Bess Okum, staff attorney with the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which filed the suit on behalf of nine current and former prisoners. “Many of these former prisoners commit new crimes because of their untreated mental illness.”

State prison and mental health officials said Wednesday they would not comment on pending litigation.

According to prison policies, mentally ill inmates are supposed to get a referral to a local mental health agency prior to their release, along with a 14-day supply of medications, a list of follow-up care services in the community and, if they qualify, help in completing a Medicaid application.

A statement on the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction web site states that “it is the policy of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to ensure the prompt and continuous delivery of mental health care.”

Okum said the state has not lived up to those promises. She said former inmates rarely are directed to follow-up care programs and most get no help at all.

“The failure of those agencies to provide pre-release guidance is making all of Ohio’s communities less safe and is needlessly squandering taxpayer dollars,” Okum said.

The prisoners listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are not named, but Okum said they suffer from illnesses that include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. All have lengthy criminal records and some committed new crimes soon after their release, including one who was arrested just three weeks after leaving prison.

The civil rights lawsuit, which seeks payment of attorney fees but does not ask for money damages, accuses the state of violating the inmates’ constitutional rights and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.