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Troubled inmates’ care to improve

A federal court judge has approved a landmark settlement between the state Department of Correction and prisoner advocate groups, ending a longstanding clash over the treatment of mentally ill inmates who are sent to segregation units for disciplinary reasons.

The agreement creates alternatives to segregation units in two of the state’s prisons and reforms a classification system for mentally ill inmates.

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In approving the agreement that was five years in the making, US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf said that it is a proper balance between the state’s authority to run the prison and the concerns raised by the Disability Law Center. He said the settlement needs little further involvement from the court.

The judge held a series of hearings after both sides had requested Wolf’s approval. He said in an order that the agreed-upon terms reflect the “best correctional practices in working with seriously mentally ill prisoners.’’

“The [Correction Department] has already begun to implement the provisions of the agreement, and the evidence indicates its efficacy in improving the mental health of inmates and enhancing the safety of prison personnel,’’ Wolf said in a 33-page ruling.

The judge will retain jurisdiction over the case for at least three years, and the Disability Law Center can bring it back before the court if it believes a violation has occurred. The judge would then have to determine if there was a civil rights violation. Under the deal, the Department of Correction admits to no wrongdoing in previous suicides.

As part of the agreement, the department created and is maintaining two units at high-level security prisons as alternatives to disciplinary segregation for prisoners with severe mental illness. A Secure Treatment Program with 19 beds was created at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, providing inmates with mental health care while under tight security. And a 10-bed Behavior Management Unit at MCI-Cedar Junction would address the needs of mentally ill inmates with a chronic disciplinary problem.

In addition, the department agreed to better screen inmates before and during their confinement in segregation, and to have mental health professionals involved in the process. The department must also provide expanded mental health services and out-of-cell time for prisoners with mental illness who are awaiting placement in treatment units.

A Globe Spotlight series in 2007 found that inmates with histories of mental illness were living in misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons, with the Department of Correction providing inadequate care that often resulted in inmates committing suicide.

The department reported 15 inmate suicides between 2005 and 2007, and at one point the state’s rate of prison suicides was twice the national average.

The Disability Law Center filed the lawsuit in partnership with prisoner advocate groups such as the Massachusetts Prisoners’ Legal Services.

Robert Fleischner, an attorney with the Center for Public Representation, one of the prisoner rights groups, said in a statement praising the agreement: “Massachusetts is now moving into the mainstream of segregation reform in the nation. This settlement incorporates the best ideas of clinicians and correctional officials and will greatly benefit’’ mentally ill prisoners.

The department acknowledged that the settlement calls for it to maintain programs it has implemented during and before the lawsuit was filed “with regard to the treatment of seriously mentally ill inmates whose behavior requires strict security measures.’’

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