delgazette.com

Delaware’s own steps up to help Sandy victims

July 17, 2012

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS

AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS — Mentally ill inmates leaving Ohio prisons will walk out the door with a month’s worth of medications, double the amount they used to receive, under a change by the prison system that officials hope will ease inmates’ transition and keep them from committing new crimes.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is also developing a program that could give the same inmates prescriptions for up to two additional months, though they would have to find a way to pay for the medications.

The change, which went into effect Monday, will affect about 158 mentally ill inmates a month, at a cost of about $220,000 a year, to be covered by internal budget adjustments. Inmates receiving medications include those with severe depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“These are some of our most vulnerable individuals that we take care of,” said Stuart Hudson, the agency’s chief of correctional care. “Sometimes leaving them out there with only a 14-day supply, and basically telling them that they have to fend for themselves — it’s hard for some of them to do that.”

Inmates’ post-release lives aren’t the state’s responsibility, at least on paper, said Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Ohio chapter, which worked with the prisons agency and the Department of Mental Health on the issue.

But the change also shows the state is taking seriously “an ethical issue” involving these inmates, he said.

Many mentally ill inmates ended up in prison because of impulse decisions made as a result of their illness and not because of any conscious criminal behavior, Russell said.

“I can guarantee you, when a person leaves prison, if they don’t have sufficient medication as they did in prison, they’re going to get in trouble,” Russell said Tuesday. “These illnesses don’t go away just because they left prison.”

A 2010 federal lawsuit alleged the state made it harder for mentally ill inmates to meet the conditions of their release by not adequately helping them obtain housing, food stamps, Medicaid, disability benefits and other assistance.

A judge dismissed the complaint, saying attorneys for inmates hadn’t proved that the state was at fault for the many factors leading to mentally ill ex-offenders’ problems. The judge, Sandra Beckwith, ruled in January 2011 that many factors contribute to the problems, “including access to mental health care, finding safe and affordable housing, or securing transportation or employment.”

Similar lawsuits have been filed in recent years involving state prisons and jails in New Mexico, New York and Chicago.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which filed the Ohio suit, dropped an appeal to continue negotiations with the state, said David Singleton, the center’s executive director.

He welcomed the medication announcement and said his group looks forward to working with the state to solve remaining issues in the lawsuit, including connecting seriously mentally ill prisoners to benefits before they leave prison.

Hudson said the medication change was not a result of the lawsuit.