Crime and Justice

State begins implementing new law on mental health in prison

Annie Ramniceanu

Annie Ramniceanu, mental health systems director for the Corrections Department, speaks to lawmakers. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

[V]ermont officials have finalized an agreement between the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections to begin improving treatment for inmates with mental illness.

The agreement is the first step in a multiyear policy change required as part of a law passed this year. The legislation, S.61, makes several changes regarding mental health treatment for people incarcerated in Vermont.

Under the new law, as of July 2019, if a mental health provider finds that a prisoner is in need of an inpatient level of care, the inmate must receive that level of care within 48 hours.

A.J. Ruben of the group Disability Rights Vermont said the new law addresses “a longstanding issue” concerning timely access to needed mental health treatment.

The issue has been at the heart of lawsuits the organization has brought against the state before, including one, involving a person identified only as Patient A, which was settled last year. The settlement included an agreement that prisoners with a need for a hospital level of psychiatric treatment would get more time with clinicians.

Ruben said the new law will increase collaboration between state departments to serve inmates with mental illness.

“It’s making the Agency of Human Services use its resources more effectively to make sure that folks who need more care than they’re able to get (receive) those augmented services,” Ruben said.

In the new law, legislators also required the departments of Mental Health and Corrections to work together to set up a mental health treatment center for those in the corrections system by July 2019.

In the interim, the two departments were required to enter into a memorandum of understanding by July 1 for how to care for inmates who are determined to need a higher level of mental health services than the corrections system can provide.

Annie Ramniceanu, mental health systems director for the Corrections Department, said state officials are still exploring what a forensic mental health care center could look like. Over the next year, they will further look into what need there is in Vermont and see what models might be a good fit.

The new law enhances collaboration between the departments, she said.

“I do think this increases the accountability of all the systems to provide care and creates pathways for this collaboration,” Ramniceanu said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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