DOVER, Del. — A federal judge has approved a settlement in a lawsuit alleging that mentally ill inmates in Delaware have been subjected to solitary confinement without proper evaluation, monitoring and treatment.
Under the settlement approved late last week, the Department of Correction will limit the length of time that inmates spend in disciplinary housing and will increase the amount of unstructured recreation time available to inmates in certain maximum security settings.
Inmates in restrictive housing, formerly known as solitary confinement, traditionally have been kept in their cells for up to 72 hours at a time, with only three hours outside their cells each week for exercise and showers.
When the agreement is fully implemented, most inmates in restrictive housing will be granted at least 17.5 hours outside their cells each week.
The DOC also has agreed to undertake steps to better classify, track and care for prisoners with mental health issues and in restrictive housing, including creating a special needs unit at the women’s prison in New Castle. The DOC also will construct a new building at the maximum security prison in Smyrna to provide more programming and treatment for inmates in restrictive housing.
State officials also agreed in settling the lawsuit to pay $500,000 to the Community Legal Aid Society for attorney fees and costs.
CLASI, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, has argued that solitary confinement can exacerbate symptoms of mentally ill inmates’ disorders. They also argued that such confinement violates their constitutional rights, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.
In a joint statement with the DOC released Tuesday, CLASI executive director Daniel Atkins said the settlement “for all intents and purposes ends solitary confinement of individuals with mental illness as we know it.”
“The fact remains that, sadly, DOC is the largest provider of mental health services in the state of Delaware,” Atkins added. “Now DOC will be developing programming, buildings, and staff, to improve the care and treatment it is providing.”
DOC Commissioner Rob Coupe thanked CLASI and the ACLU for working with the DOC to resolve the lawsuit through “meaningful and productive dialogue,” avoiding the need for trial.
“The resulting agreement is consistent with the DOC’s ongoing efforts to maintain safe and secure facilities while improving conditions of confinement in a way that will increase treatment options and improve the chances of successful re-entry for our offenders when they return to the community,” Coupe said.