Mentally ill inmates get help

Oregon State Penitentiary Capt. Toby Tooley demonstrates the use of classroom chairs in the new behavioral health treatment building.

SALEM — The Oregon Department of Corrections has opened a new behavioral health treatment center at Oregon State Penitentiary to help improve conditions for inmates with severe mental illness.

Two years ago, Colette Peters, the department’s director, signed a memorandum of understanding with Disability Rights Oregon to increase out-of-cell time for these inmates and make other improvements. Peters agreed to give inmates at least 20 hours per week, or less than three hours per day, outside their cells by 2020.

“I believe this building and our great staff work is going to get us there in no time,” Peters said during a ribbon-cutting at the treatment center on Friday.

In July and early August, the agency provided about 12.6 hours per week, or about 1.8 hours a day, Peters said. Inmates remain in windowless cells measured 6 feet by 11 feet with no companionship for the rest of the day. Disability Rights Oregon has alleged those conditions are on par with solitary confinement.

Twenty hours a week is the minimum needed to protect inmates with mental health conditions from cruel and unusual punishment as defined by the Eighth Amendment, according to Disability Rights Oregon.

Joel Greenberg, attorney at Disability Rights Oregon, said he is “skeptically optimistic” that the agency will meet its obligation.

“We hope this building — which they have placed a lot of faith in and a lot of hope in — will turn around the numbers,” Greenberg said.

State lawmakers appropriated $5.2 million in February 2016 to build, furnish and staff the treatment center for some 45 inmates who have serious mental illness and have demonstrated violent or disruptive behavior.

The metal mesh doors in the inmates’ living quarters and the configuration of the prison prevent exposure to natural light and make it difficult for inmates to communicate with anyone outside.

“Talking to someone through punched-out metal holes doesn’t allow you to adequately see or hear anything,” Greenberg said. “In order to talk to someone inside a cell, you would have to bend down and talk through the food slot and hopefully the resident of the cell would do the same thing. Even though the residents are very disabled and ill, there is a lot of noise, yelling and screaming that made it difficult to have not only a private conversation but any conversation.”

Now, inmates can meet privately with mental health professionals in one of 13 offices at the treatment center. The 6,830-square-foot center also has four classrooms for group therapy with six desks where inmates can be secured, two physicians’ offices and one counselor office.

The space will allow the Department of Corrections to convene nine classes per week Monday through Friday for mentally ill inmates in the Behavioral Health Unit, which will increase the time outside of cells, said Capt. Toby Tooley. The center offers windows, natural light and soothing turquoise-hued walls to help enhance inmates’ mood.

In the past three years, the Department of Corrections has expanded the types of therapy offered to inmates from one kind to 19 varieties, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology and art therapy, said Gabe Gitnes, an assistant administrator at the department’s behavioral health services.

The department has also made progress in decreasing use of force and other metrics that contribute to living conditions.

“The living units are problematic, but they are not the entire program,” Greenberg said. “The department has been trying to change culture and has increased staff-to-resident ratio, and we share their hope things will be better and things are better than when we first started working on this.”

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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