An exposé in the Los Angeles Times has brought renewed focus to something we lose sight of too often here in the United States: prisoners still have rights, and that includes the mentally-ill.
The newspaper notes that “three decades of federal litigation” has conclusively established “that psychiatric care in prison is a constitutional right” and yet it tells the story of a man suffering from schizophrenia who spent 46 hours with his arms and legs “shackled to a chair in the San Luis Obispo County jail.” The man died a short time after being released from the chair and then “dumped on the floor of a nearby cell.”
The case has shocked the local community, and led to “a record $5 million legal settlement” according to the newspaper. But the events that led to this tragedy are worth exploring because of the lessons they hold for the rest of the country, including us here in Oregon. It is essential to understand that the victim was being held at a county facility because of a state program designed to reduce prison overcrowding. The result of that program was to push many prisoners out of state facilities and into municipal and county ones. This is significant because state and local jails are rarely equipped to deal with long-term inmates who have mental health issues.
As I have written on several previous occasions, 42 US Code 1983 and the body of legal precedents surrounding it long-ago established that states and localities cannot deny anyone under their care all the rights afforded to each of us under the US constitution. That means that cases involving abuse and neglect in local jails are, in effect, civil rights violations. Equally importantly, liability does not require active abuse on the part of guards or officials. If a person suffers death or injury, or otherwise has their civil rights violated because of indifference on the part of guards or officials a violation has still occurred – one for which the city, state or county can also be held accountable when its officials were the source of the offending conduct.
It is, however, equally important to note that officials who actively abuse or neglect prisoners are not the only ones who risk legal sanctions. As the Oregon Department of Human Services website notes (see link below), “all citizens have a responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves… Oregon state law, however, mandates that workers in certain professions must make reports if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse and neglect.” Had the California case taken place in Oregon, it is likely that numerous justice system employees beyond those working at the jail might have been exposed to legal liability. Here in Oregon physicians and other medical professionals, attorneys and all employees of the Department of Human Services are classified as “mandatory reporters” – meaning they have a legal obligation to report abuse and neglect that they witness, or simply become aware of. The key section of state law, ORS 419B.005, is usually thought of in reference to child abuse, but it is important to understand that its requirements of care – like those of 42 USC 1983 – extend to all instances of alleged abuse and neglect, especially those involving the mentally-ill.
As a Portland attorney I have built my practice around helping ordinary Oregonians obtain justice even when the odds appear stacked against them. It can be especially intimidating to pit oneself against the law enforcement system itself when demanding that our rights as Americans be honored. Yet it is precisely to preserve these freedoms that we have an open court system. Our rights mean little if we are not able to enjoy them, and, as I wrote at the outset, it is equally important to remember that we do not lose those rights merely because we or a loved one suffers from mental illness or is incarcerated.
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: 42 US Code 1983
Oregon Department of Human Services: How to Report Abuse and Neglect
Oregon Department of Human Services: Mandatory Reporting