Years after a series of suicides in state prison segregation units, the state Department of Correction has reached a landmark agreement with advocate groups to better care for prisoners with severe mental illnesses.
The agreement, still under seal in US District Court in Boston and awaiting a judge’s final approval, calls for the Department of Correction to maintain two recently created units at high-level security prisons as alternatives to disciplinary segregation for prisoners with mental illness, according to court records and negotiations in a recent court hearing.
A Secure Treatment Program with 19 beds would be maintained at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, providing inmates with mental health care while under tight security. A 10-bed Behavior Management Unit at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole would address needs of mentally ill patients with chronic disciplinary problems.
Both programs were started following a lawsuit filed by the Disability Law Center on behalf of prisoners with mental illness, and after a Globe Spotlight series found that inadequate care for mentally ill prisoners often resulted in inmate suicides.
The department reported 15 inmate suicides from 2005-2007.
“This provides, and is already providing, meaningful, workable, and appropriate alternatives to isolation,’’ Robert Fleischner, a lawyer for the Disability Law Center, said in open court recently. “There is a time out of cell, and therapy, that is not available to units in the disciplinary unit.’’
The Department of Correction has agreed to sustain the new units as part of the deal.
The agreement has been signed by representatives of the Disability Law Center and the Department of Correction, but has not been approved by the federal court.
The Correction Department has also promised to develop procedures for screening and evaluation of inmates in segregation units, to determine whether they suffer from severe mental illness.
In addition, the department agreed to restrict placement of inmates with mental illness into segregation units. The department will better train staff and assess inmates in need of care.
The changes are being made to a system that in years past would discipline prisoners with severe mental illnesses by sending them to a segregation unit, where they stayed in isolation for 23 hours a day.
“That exacerbates their illness . . . That is deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition,’’ Fleischner said in court.
State officials said they could not comment on the deal pending its approval, but added in a statement, “The Department of Correction takes the well-being of its mentally ill inmates seriously and looks forward to the judgment of the courts in the near future.’’
A spokesman for the Disability Law Center also would not comment yesterday.
The Disability Law Center sued the department in 2007 alleging civil rights violations, just as the Globe Spotlight series revealed deepening mental illness and misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons. That series also identified numerous problems, including botched background screenings on suicidal inmates, missing mental health records, and skipped security rounds by officers.
The lawsuit alleges that hundreds of mentally ill prisoners were kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, leading to suicides and self-mutilation.
In December of 2011, the Department of Correction reached the agreement with the Disability Law Center, following negotiations that both sides said in court records were “lengthy, vigorous, and conducted at arms’ length.’’
The two groups asked US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf to approve the deal, which would allow for the court to have continued jurisdiction of the case for three years to ensure the agreement is being honored. The Law Center could ask the judge to enforce the agreement if it found the department was not abiding by the terms of the deal.
Wolf has questioned whether technicalities prevent him from legally approving the deal under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. Lawyers involved in the case have been debating the legal technicalities and are due to report back to the court in March.
But Wolf, at a hearing earlier this month, commended both sides for reaching an agreement on the key issues that “at times are literally issues of life or death for inmates.’’
The Department of Correction came under intense scrutiny in 2007 following a series of suicides, most of them in segregation units by inmates with histories of mental illness and attempted suicides.
The department hired a consultant in 2007, made several improvements to the segregation unit system, and attempted to reach a deal with the Disability Law Center.
However, those negotiations failed, and plans for change were shelved because of the state’s fiscal crisis, and the department saw another increase in suicides, with eight people killing themselves in 2010.
In response to an outcry from inmate advocates, the state rehired Lindsay M. Hayes, a suicide prevention consultant from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, who first conducted a review of the state prisons in 2007.
Hayes, who reviewed the prisons again in 2010, said in an interview yesterday that the Correction Department had begun to initiate a number of recommended reforms in 2008, but that those reforms were scrapped because of budgetary problems.
He said that he found in his return in 2010, however, that the department had once again initiated changes to the system and that those changes are now in place.
Hayes said the department’s creation of the new alternatives to the segregation unit were key recommendations. But he also said that the department increased training and developed new protocol for assessing inmates’ mental illness.
“It was just increasing the in-depth assessment process for inmates that were identified as suicidal,’’ he said. “Just doing better intake of screening, better suicide risk assessment, spending more time doing that.’’
The department reported one suicide in 2011, after the changes were implemented. The eight suicides reported in 2010 represented the highest number in more than 15 years.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.