New Mental Health Program at USP Atlanta

This past Sunday’s New York Times featured a profile of the Cook County Jail (IL), “[t]he largest mental health center in America.” Writing separately, Nicholas Kristof offered “[a] few data snapshots:

• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.

• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.

Against this backdrop comes another compelling story from Andrew Cohen, writing for The Atlantic. Cohen gives insight into the “High Security Mental Health Step-Down Unit” at USP Atlanta, “believed to be the first federal prison program ever designed and implemented to provide substantial long-term care and treatment for high-security mentally ill inmates.”

The first group of inmates arrived at the 30-bed unit in early September. There are currently 16 severely mentally ill prisoners in the program, most either transferred directly from the ADX-Florence “Supermax” prison in Colorado or from the federal mental health prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Within the next month or so, an additional four inmates should join the group and the plan is for the Unit to remain at a working level of approximately 20 prisoners.

What’s different here, what has not happened before in any federal prison, is that the new program is adequately staffed with mental health professionals who have designed a treatment-focused program intended to enable high-security prisoners eventually to “step down” from solitary confinement to less restrictive environments.[…]

What’s also different here is the level of attention and care the Atlanta inmates are receiving. Unlike their mentally ill colleagues at other federal prisons, the men in this unit are receiving direct, continuous access to trained mental health professionals. For the 16 men, there are now two psychologists, a psychiatric nurse and at least two other mental health professionals whose offices are in the unit and who are devoted entirely to the unit. (By contrast, when the federal civil rights litigation first was filed in Colorado against the Bureau of Prisons there were at ADX-Florence two psychologists and one psychiatrist for an inmate population of between 420 and 450.)

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