The chief judge of the U.S. District Court here ordered the city government yesterday to bring conditions for mentally ill inmates held at D.C. Jail up to "minimum standards of decency" within 60 days or transfer those inmates to other facilities.
In a sternly worded order, Judge William B. Bryant wrote that the 70 or more mentally ill inmates at the jail have lived in "bedlam" in a special unit, along with normal inmates held there for disciplinary reasons. The latter frequently fight with the sick inmates to "teach them a lesson" about their sometimes strange behavior, Bryant noted.
Based on evidence taken in hearings a year ago, Bryant wrote that mentally ill inmates also are often held in "deadock" -- confined to their cells for more than 24 hours -- because there are not enough guards to handle them.
"The court cannot escape the conclusion that to be mentally ill and to be transferred to [the unit] is to be relegated closer to oblivion than to treatment," Bryant said in an eight-page ruling.
Bryant, reaffirming an order he issued five years ago in a landmark case brought by the city's Public Defender Service, warned the city yesterday that he intends to strictly enforce the 60-day deadline.
"Too much time has passed since the callous disregard of the welfare of the mentally ill residents at the jail has become clear to all," Bryant wrote. Persons held in the jail unit for mentally ill residents include persons who were unable t adjust to the standard jail setting, persons with chronic mental health problems who have been in and out of the city hospital system, and some persons who have been found by the courts to be incompetent or innocent of crimes by reason of insanity.
Five years ago, in a pair of decisions that ordered sweeping improvements in the D.C. Jail complex, Bryant told city officials that residents found to be mentally ill had to be transferred to other facilities within 48 hours. In upholding Bryant's decision in 1978, the U.S. Court of Appeals said it would permit the city to file notice with the court in "exceptional cases" in which that requirement was not met.
That plan was drawn up after court hearings in April and May 1979 portrayed a harrowing scene in the jail unit -- known as Southeast 3 -- where mentally ill residents are housed. Bryant noted that psychiatrists on both sides of the issue have testified that confinements in that unit is "deleterious to the mental health" of the persons held there.
In its December report, the city promised to hire 10 mental health technicians, three psychiatric nurses and eight additional correctional officers to provide needed services to the inmates, Bryant noted. Despite those promises, Bryant said, the compliance with its own plan has been "dismal," and "hardly any" of the 21 persons designated have in fact been hired.
Yesterday, Bryant told the Department of Corrections that it must comply with the plan within 60 days.