Citing ‘irreparable harm,’ judge orders state to stop jailing psychiatric patients

Alaska Psychiatric Institute (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services)

A Superior Court judge has ordered the State of Alaska to stop housing psychiatric patients in jails, in most cases.

Due to problems including but not limited to overcrowding at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, state officials have said API needed to send incoming patients under involuntary commitment to correctional facilities, prompting the Disability Law Center of Alaska to sue in October 2018. Almost exactly a year later, Judge William Morse on Monday ordered the state to come up with a plan to better evaluate patients, to move them out of jails if they’re not charged with a crime and to stop the practice of housing them there except in extreme circumstances.

In the order — which was first reported and posted online by the Anchorage Daily News — Judge Morse writes that psychiatric patients held at jails were “suffering irreparable harm.” For example, Morse writes, the need to keep psychiatric patients away from a jail’s general population meant they were actually under more restrictions and isolation than a typical inmate. The state must now come up with a new plan by Dec. 5, Morse ordered.

”I think it’s a complete victory for Alaskans with disabilities,” said Joanna Cahoon, a lawyer with the Disability Law Center, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Cahoon points out that Judge Morse noted that the state was likely trying hard to improve the situation for psychiatric patients but that improvement was not coming soon enough.

“I think that the judge made a point of making it clear that DOC is really doing their best in a pretty uncomfortable situation, but it’s jail, at the end of the day, and so people basically are in jail-like conditions — obviously non-therapeutic,” she said.

In an email, Department of Law spokesperson Cori Mills said the department is still reviewing the decision “and will determine next steps.”