2010 Press Releases

4.12.2010: Advocacy Center Sues to Ensure Mental Health Care for Prisoners

Seeking the three goals of improving mental health, reducing the prison population, and ensuring due process of law, the Advocacy Center and an individual plaintiff today sued the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, its Secretary, and two administrators to declare two Louisiana statutes unconstitutional and to require the prompt transfer of mentally ill pretrial detainees to the Feliciana Forensic Facility, in compliance with existing court orders. The Advocacy Center and the individual are represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Louisiana and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a private law firm that is working pro bono.

Under Louisiana law, if a pretrial detainee-someone who has been charged with a crime but has not yet been tried-is diagnosed as lacking the mental capacity to stand trial, that person must be given restorative mental health treatment or be released from custody. For those detainees with the most severe mental health issues, the law requires that they be sent to the Feliciana Forensic Facility to obtain inpatient mental health treatment so that criminal proceedings can resume. But for many years, funding for Feliciana has been wholly inadequate, causing a dramatic shortage of treatment beds at the facility. As a result, many detainees who have been ordered by the courts into the custody of Feliciana, and who should have been sent there for treatment, instead remain in local jails without the ability to go to trial, sometimes for long periods of time, despite their presumed innocence.

"The lack of funding for mental health care for detainees awaiting trial is an avoidable tragedy that imposes an enormous human cost," said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, which represents the plaintiffs. "This case is about turning people with illnesses into prisoners for no reason other than allocation of funds. People known to have disabilities are imprisoned indefinitely when they haven't been convicted of anything, simply because the State of Louisiana won't spend the money to provide them with treatment. This is not just illegal, it is an unconscionable way to treat vulnerable people."

The Advocacy Center is a non-profit corporation, designated by Louisiana to protect and advocate for persons with disabilities. It brings this action as part of its duty to its clients, explained Lois Simpson, Executive Director of the Advocacy Center. Simpson added, "Some of the people who are the subject of this lawsuit stay in jails longer than they would have stayed there had they actually gone to trial. This lawsuit is about getting severely mentally ill people the treatment they need."

The individual plaintiff, a minor whose mother is acting on his behalf, is one of the detainees denied access to Feliciana due to the shortage of beds. He remains incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison, where he has been for many months despite an order to transfer him to Feliciana for treatment for his mental illness. "Others have been incarcerated for even longer than this individual, some for over two years," said Esman. "These people are in jail for one reason: they need medical attention that the State of Louisiana is not providing despite its legal obligation. Meanwhile, they are denied their right not to be detained unnecessarily, and our prison population increases, all because the state hasn't properly funded the Feliciana facility."

"The purpose of this case is to make sure that the courts' orders are followed," said Marjorie Lindblom, a partner with Kirkland & Ellis LLP. "The courts have already found that each of these pretrial detainees could, if given proper treatment, be restored to competency and stand trial. Keeping them in parish jails-for months, or even years-before they are transferred for treatment violates the detainees' constitutional rights and imposes costs on the parishes that should be borne by the state."

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, seeks a judicial order that two state statutes be stricken as unconstitutional because they permit people whom the courts have found need inpatient mental health treatment to remain in jail for excessively long periods of time without receiving the required restorative treatment, thereby denying them due process of law. The suit also seeks an order requiring the prompt transfer of eligible pretrial detainees to Feliciana for immediate restorative care.

Attorneys handling the case are Marjorie Lindblom, Adam Humann, Maura M. Klugman and Emily Lee from Kirkland & Ellis LLP; Nell Hahn, Koki Otero and Miranda Tait of Advocacy Center; and Katie Schwartzmann and Barry Gerharz of the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana.

A copy of the Complaint may be found here.