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The Mental Health Rights of Inmates: A History

Yanofski, J. Prisoners v. Prisons: A History of Correctional Mental Health Rights. Psychiatry 7(10):41-44, 2010.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

The history of the prisoners' civil rights movement can be traced to the early 1960s, when an inmate successfully sued a prison forImage of Judicial Building the first time in the United States Supreme Court.  In Cooper v. Pate (1964), the inmate, Thomas Cooper, asserted his constitutional right to purchase Muslim reading material. The Cooper ruling set a precedent that prisoners could use Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act to challenge how they were being treated in prison. Successful "1983" claims allow prisoners to collect damages and have attorney fees recovered.

Such rulings laid the groundwork for mental health claims as well. In the landmark correctional mental health case Vitek v. Jones (1980), an inmate claimed that a Nebraska statute was unconstitutional. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the prisoner, noting that involuntary transfer to a mental hospital is protected under the 14th Amendment's due-process clause. The court required that an inmate's involuntary transfer to a psychiatric hospital meet the following criteria:

1.  Adequate notice
2.  An adversarial hearing before an independent decision maker
3.  Written statement of the evidence on which the decision was based
4.  Appointed counsel if the inmate cannot afford counsel on his or her own.

Two subsequent cases served to stem the burgeoning number of prisoner lawsuits. In Turner v. Safley (1987), inmates brought a class action lawsuit challenging several regulations of the Missouri Division of Corrections. In this case, the United States Supreme Court decided that prisoners' rights must be balanced against the needs and safety requirements of the prison facility, and that these needs and requirements outweigh the rights of individuals. This standard was used in Harper v. Washington (1990), a case in which an incarcerated inmate sued the state of Washington, when the court ruled that it was acceptable to give psychiatric medications to prisoners without their consent, based only on internal review.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (1996) further attempted to curtail prisoner lawsuits. It states that a federal court shall not allow relief unless "such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the federal right."

 Prisoners, however, continue to use Section 1983 to make constitutional claims against prisons. Several notable class action lawsuits in California highlight prisoners' successes:

  • Coleman v. Schwarzenegger resulted in a 1994 ruling that California prisons' mental healthcare constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," violating the Eighth Amendment.
  • Plata v. Schwarzenegger (2001) also resulted in a finding that prison conditions violated the Eighth Amendment with respect to medical care of prisoners. The court cited numerous deficiencies, including inadequate screening for medical problems, inadequate access to medical care, and insufficient medical staffing.

In the Plata v. Schwarzenegger case, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's (CDCR) medical department was placed under court-appointed management after California was unable to improve conditions to the federal court's satisfaction. A federal investigation found that psychiatric care could not be improved until the prison system resolved its overcrowding problem. Subsequently, the courts ordered California to implement a plan to safely reduce CDCR's population; however, the state is appealing this ruling. California is expected to argue that, even though prison overpopulation caused the constitutional violation, the court's order to correct it was also unconstitutional.  

For more information, contact Jason Yanofski, M.D., Minor Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at the U.S. Army Garrison, Bamberg, Germany, email:

Posted Fri, Mar 2 2012 12:54 PM by Tracey Vessels


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