The ACLU says the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma violates the basic standards of human decency.
The ACLU says the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma violates the "basic standards of human decency." GREGOBAGEL/GETTYIMAGES.COM

The ACLU filed a lawsuit today seeking class action status on behalf of people with mental illness in the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma.

The lawsuit describes the cases of two men, one a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and bipolar disorder, and another man with major depression who experiences suicidal ideation. Both men, the ACLU says, were not properly screened for mental illness and asked repeatedly for psychological help, but were punished for "non-violent behaviors directly related to their mental illnesses" with solitary confinement, pepper spray, and restraints. Despite the jail employing a psychiatrist, the lawsuit also claims mental health staff denied two men medication and/or treatment when they asked for help. Staff instead gave them worksheets on "coping skills."

"Despite the clinically proven negative impacts of isolation on people with mental illness, Defendants routinely warehouse these individuals in solitary confinement for 21 to 24 hours a day, where they predictably deteriorate," the complaint reads. "Defendants then compound these problems by refusing to provide people released from their custody with a supply of their psychiatric medications, as required by law."

Jail officials also misinterpreted requests for help from these men, according to the lawsuit. When the veteran told a mental health provider at the jail that his "cellmate won't stop talking," the provider noted that he was "unable to get along with his roommate." The inmate was further told that there was nothing the jail could do about housing issues. But it wasn't a roommate doing the incessant talking. The veteran was experiencing auditory hallucinations, the lawsuit says.

It's worth noting that, even outside the criminal justice system, people with mental illness are struggling to find the resources to address their conditions, too. A study published last week by risk management group Milliman concluded that insurance companies still aren't covering much mental health treatment within their networks, and are paying mental health providers 20 percent less than they do general practitioners.

A spokesperson for the Pierce County government confirmed that the jail has a mental health manager, but declined to comment further on the lawsuit. The county, she added, just won a $1.9 million grant to address problems faced by people with mental illness in the local criminal justice system. The grant will fund "mental health professionals, case coordinators, a social worker, and legal professionals" as well as a "court resource center, supportive housing and rental assistance for individuals transitioning from jail" starting in March of 2018.

Read the full lawsuit here.