Over the last year, dozens of Alaskans experiencing mental health crises found themselves in an unexpected place: a prison or jail cell—even though they had not necessarily been charged with a crime.
They were supposed to be treated in the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) after receiving an involuntary commitment order from a judge. But the hospital is in the midst of a staffing crisis: At one point this past year, API could accommodate less than half, or 27 beds, of its intended capacity of 80 beds. This has resulted in people awaiting an evaluation being detained in “extraordinary conditions that amount to punishment” at Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, as an Anchorage judge wrote on October 21.
Superior Court Judge William Morse ruled the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHSS) stashing of people in receipt of a Section 47 involuntary commitment order at prisons or jails to be unconstitutional. He also ordered issued a preliminary injunction requiring DHSS to end the practice, after the agency “made no effort to take responsibility for the circumstances of the civil detainees before each reaches API.”
Civil detainees in the men’s corrections facilities are treated in almost the same ways as those who are criminally incarcerated—even though they would have enjoyed far better conditions at API. The cells “are essentially identical to others,” all of which are windowless and offer “a steel platform or concrete slab” for sleeping. In contrast, all rooms at API have beds and blankets and “windows that look outside,” as the judge described the disparate accommodations.
Civil detainees in DOC facilities are subjected to “what is essentially solitary confinement,” the judge wrote, noting that they are “common[ly]” left in their cell for twenty-three hours a day, and are denied access, perhaps ironically, to the same therapeutic groups that incarcerated people have.” At API, all rooms are unlocked and civil detainees can attend therapeutic groups.
The problem had been escalating in the run-up to Judget Morse’s ruling. Between February and September 2019, the number of civil detainees held in DOC custody more than doubled, from seven to 14 people, according to the Disability Law Center of Alaska (DLCA), a civil rights organization that was a plaintiff in the case.
Before the API staffing crisis, police had the discretion to detain and bring people thought to be eligible for a civil commitment order to the psychiatric hospital. But now, the police have been directed to deliver the profiled person straight to the Department of Corrections facility.
The DCLA hailed the injunction as “a victory for Alaskans with disabilities,” according to a press release from the organization. But the fight isn’t over; Judge Morse ordered DHSS to propose a plan to fix the problem by December 5. As the Alaska Daily News reported, the state has not indicated how it intends to do this.
“True reform,” as DCLA executive director David Fleurant urged, “will require a long-term solution: community-based treatment options that prevent psychiatric emergencies in the first place and relieve unnecessary pressure on API.”
Photo of a housing unit at the Anchorage Correctional Complex; Courtesy of Alaska Department of Corrections