Volume 27

Behind Bars and in the Hole: Applying Olmstead to Incarcerated Individuals with Mental Illness

by Sahar Takshi

Mental illness is pervasive in American prisons and jails. Individuals who, prior to deinstitutionalization efforts in the 1960s, would have been committed to state hospitals are now unable to access the appropriate services in the community. Consequently, individuals with mental illness are excessively entangled in the criminal justice system and frequently incarcerated. Conversely, many individuals without a recorded history of mental illness develop such conditions while in correctional facilities.

Despite the enormous number of detainees and inmates with mental illness, U.S. prisons and jails lag behind in the provision of adequate mental health treatment: staffing levels are low, screenings are subpar, and treatment plans are neglected. Ill-equipped to address the needs of this population, correctional facilities frequently further isolate inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement—a response that often exacerbates the person’s condition and prolongs their stay. Litigation involving inmates with mental illness has heavily relied on Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claims, often arguing “deliberate indifference” to incarcerated or detained individuals’ needs. This cause of action places a high burden on prisoner-plaintiffs to demonstrate prison officials’ subjective knowledge and a conscious disregard of inmates’ needs. Courts give deference to correctional officers’ decisions about when and how to respond to inmates with mental illness. Litigants also rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which poses a similar subjective-knowledge burden.

This Note attempts to introduce how the Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring decision can be used as an alternative to traditional “deliberate indifference” claims. It focuses on some of the advantages of Olmstead litigation, both in terms of burdens of proof and possible long-term policy goals. Given the movement towards community-integration of people with disabilities, it is important that we consider how the principles of integration and non-isolation apply even in the context of incarceration.


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