Iris Eytan and a team of lawyers filed this action to help people locked up jails with mental illness on October 28th, as reported in the Denver Post

Iris Eytan and a team of lawyers filed this action to help people locked up jails with mental illness on October 28th, as reported in the Denver Post

Federal motion alleges cover-up on competency evaluations, seeks to reopen case against Colorado
The Colorado Department of Human Services could face a federal judge for allegedly violating a federal agreement requiring them to complete inmate competency evaluations in a timely manner.

By Jordan Steffen
This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on October 28, 2015
To view the original article, click here

A motion filed in federal court Wednesday accused the Colorado Department of Human Services of violating a federal agreement and asked a judge to order the state to eliminate a backlog of inmates waiting for competency evaluations and treatment.

The motion, filed by Disability Law Colorado, revealed a June memo directing the staff to admit only one person a day at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. That directive, and the alleged cover-up that followed, likely led to the wait list of an estimate 100 inmates forced to wait months for court-ordered mental health evaluations, according to the motion.

The attorneys are asking the judge to reopen a lawsuit filed against CDHS in 2011 and require the department to eliminate the wait list by Feb. 3 or sooner.

“Without such enforcement, many presumptively innocent pretrial detainees in Colorado will languish in jail, in dangerous and debilitating conditions, waiting for competency evaluations and restorative treatment, for periods far longer than is permitted under the United States Constitution,” attorneys wrote in the motion.

Alicia Caldwell, communications director for CDHS, said officials had not yet reviewed the filing, and she declined to comment.

The 23-page motion and 674 pages of attachments reveal new details about how the backlog was discovered. It also details the experiences of half a dozen inmates who spent months in jail awaiting evaluations and treatments.

Suicidal and mentally ill inmates are spending unnecessary time in jails — some of them in solitary confinement, the motion said. For many inmates, the wait times are longer than the likely sentences they would receive, according to affidavits submitted with the pleading.

One inmate, who was identified only by his initials, N.C, was arrested in early September on a low-level felony charge, according to the motion. After his arrest, N.C. tried to kill himself by swallowing razor blades he snuck into jail.

Following the suicide attempt, a judge ordered the inmate be taken to the state hospital for a competency evaluation. But the hospital said he would have to wait until February to be admitted, according to the filing.

Since then, N.C. tried to hang himself in his cell.

Department officials previously told The Denver Post that an unrelenting increase in evaluations and difficulties retaining a full staff at the hospital resulted in the missed deadlines. They also disagree with the number of inmates attorneys say are awaiting evaluation and treatment.

The department handled 1,533 competency evaluations last year, and the number of competency evaluations has more than doubled in the past decade.

But in its motion, the law center claims the issue was caused by the department’s “failure to tend to the historical and systemic issues affecting the mental health system in Colorado.”

The law center in 2011 filed a lawsuit against the department, which handles competency evaluations ordered by judges. The lawsuit claimed the department was failing to provide evaluations and treatments in a timely manner. In 2012, the law center and CDHS reached a compromise meant to ensure that hundreds of criminal defendants spend less time waiting for state doctors to determine whether they’re fit to continue their cases and provide treatment if they are not.

The agreement requires the department to complete in-jail evaluations 30 days after they are ordered or admit people to the state hospital for in-patient evaluations within 28 days.

If defendants are found to be incompetent, they must be admitted to the hospital or an in-jail treatment program within 28 days. The department also must submit monthly reports to the law center detailing when the evaluation or treatment began for each defendant.

In July, the law center contacted CDHS about concerns that the department was not meeting the deadlines in the agreement. But the severity of the backlog was discovered months later, after the law center discovered misleading and false data had been provided in four reports since March, according to the motion.

An audit of those reports revealed that in July, the hospital failed to meet the 28-day deadline for all but three of 103 cases. In August, the department met the deadline for two of the 148 cases handled that month.

Department officials asked for a temporary waiver under the agreement in August. They said that “circumstances beyond their control” were preventing them from meeting the deadlines.

But the law center claims CDHS did not disclose an internal directive limiting admissions at the state hospital to one person per day. The rule was implemented in June, but the department did not disclose an e-mail with details about the admissions until September.

“It is undeniable that the system has collapsed,” the motion reads. “But, it also undeniable that the reason for the collapse is not due to unanticipated or special circumstances.”

The attorneys also asked the judge to set a hearing to review the department’s performance.