Oregon Converts Supermax Unit to Treat Prisoners With Mental Illness

From Solitary Watch, June 4, 2010

A reader recently called our attention to an article that appeared back in April in The Salem Statesman Journal, titled “Oregon State Penitentiary Adapts to Mental Illness.” According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, about half of the state’s 14,000 prisoners— 6,797—are mentally ill have a diagnosis of mental illness. This is ten times greater larger than the population of the state’s primary psychiatric hospital, the 627-bed Oregon State Hospital in Salem–which happens to be located just north of the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem, the state’s only maximum security prison.

Now, the Department of Corrections has announced plans to convert the OSP’s “supermax” unit, which is officially called the “Intensive Management Unit,” will be converted into what the Statesman Journal calls ”three therapy-minded units.”

For two decades, the IMU has operated as a tightly controlled compound within the now-2,000-inmate prison. It corrals belligerent and disruptive inmates–some mentally ill–in their cells for more than 23 hours per day.

By the end of this year, the two-story IMU facility will get a facelift to soften its austere environment, and will begin serving a therapeutic role… Mental health services are planned for three of the four units in the IMU building:

    • A 49-bed mental health infirmary will provide “crisis stabilizing” treatment for acutely mentally ill offenders, including inmates who attempt suicide or commit other acts of self-harm.

    • A 65-bed day-treatment unit will provide mental health services for inmates coming out of the crisis-care unit. The so-called “step down” program also will provide preventative mental health services for inmates, designed to help them cope with their illnesses and avoid crises.

    • A 73-bed behavioral unit will provide specialized services and supervision for disruptive mentally ill inmates who otherwise might end up in isolation cells.

The plan is far from perfect: Creating 187 new places in a system with 7,000 prisoner suffer from mental illness is a drop in the bucket, and it’s too soon to say how effective the mental health units will be. (In addition, the renovation calls for Oregon’s death row to occupy one part of the former IMU.) But any provision for prisoners with mental illness–especially one that replaces solitary confinement cells–has to be viewed as progress.

The article provides a brief (and all too typical) history of how mentally ill prisoners have fared in Oregon’s prisons. Author Alan Gustafson investigated prison suicides–most of which took place in the IMU–back in 2007; his extensive reporting on that subject is well worth reading as well.