Male inmates with the most severe mental illnesses are allowed out of their cells for only a few hours on average each week despite a pledge last year by the Oregon Department of Corrections to increase the amount of time, a leading disability rights organization says.
The finding is part of Disability Rights Oregon’s progress report on the state’s promise to improve conditions in the Behavioral Health Unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. The report was released Wednesday.
Read the Oregon Department of Corrections chief’s letter to Disability Rights Oregon’s report on a unit that houses severely mentally ill inmates. The agency released the letter on Tuesday in response to a public records request.
The advocacy group in 2015 issued a report detailing “a hopeless and dysfunctional program” responsible for 40 inmates with serious mental illnesses. The report concluded that inmates spent a vast majority of their days in their cells in an area facility that was dark, stifling and foul-smelling.
“It was sort of like a dungeon,” said Joel Greenberg, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon. Greenberg authored the 2015 report, as well as the new progress report. “People were howling and screaming. It was a very bad situation.”
The group identified three top concerns in its initial report: isolation of prisoners who spent 23 hours a day in 6-by-10-foot cells and were let out for one hour or less; lack of access to timely mental health services that left inmates spiraling out of control and typically resulted in the use of force by corrections officers; and a culture in which advice of mental health professionals was consistently ignored and mental health crises were handled instead through the use of stun guns, pepper spray, riot gear and restraint chairs.
Corrections officials agreed to make key changes, including adding staff to the unit, improving training, increasing space for treatment and educational programs and allowing inmates housed in the unit to spend on average 20 hours per week outside of their cells. The also agency hired an outside consultant, Joel Dvoskin, who is a clinical psychologist, to help with the reforms. The state has so far paid Dvoskin $85,799 for his work.
Greenberg said the prison system has made “impressive and meaningful” improvements. The use of force on the unit, for instance, has declined. So has the number of inmates trying to harm themselves. Fewer inmates have been placed on suicide watch. The facility unit itself has been improved: The bathrooms received a coat of paint and 42 TVs were installed, though a dozen were later destroyed by inmates, according to the report.
But prisoners in the unit still spent less than five hours a week outside of their cells, which the progress report called “a deeply concerning failure.”
Greenberg’s report notes that inmates spend more time out of their cells now than they did when the state agreed to the reforms, but he added that progress has been “erratic.”
The advocacy group attributed the lack of progress to a “vexingly high” turnover among mental health professionals in the unit, a disproportionate discipline of inmates in the special unit compared with the general population and an “overemphasis on security concerns.”
The group said it plans to investigate complaints that corrections officers retaliated against clinical staff “to determine if needed mental health services are being blocked due to the desire of some staff to assert authority rather than to further” the unit’s mission.
Colette Peters, director of the Department of Corrections, said she takes the progress report “very seriously.”
She said a chief obstacle to increasing time for recreation and treatment is the facility itself. The agency sought and received money from the Legislature to add a modular building on the grounds of the state prison for the special unit. Lawmakers set aside $5.1 million for the building and additional staffing. The governor’s proposed budget calls for another $6.9 million for the unit. The building is expected to open in 2018.
“We are working in that direction,” she said. “We have seen lots of progress. We recognize we are not perfect. We are not where we want to be, but we are truly headed in the right direction.”