THE ACLU OF Pennsylvania is suing the secretary of the state Department of Human Services and two other officials for what it calls a "consistent and continuing failure" to provide adequate mental-health care for people ruled incompetent to stand trial in criminal cases.
In the suit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, the ACLU rails against the state for having "the longest delays in the country" for competency restoration treatment, which would allow the cases to proceed.
It claims the lack of resources violates the patients' rights to due process, as well as the American Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.
"Our clients in this case are the forgotten among the forgotten," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's legal director. "Most of these people have no family, friends or champions in their lives, and no one listens or understands them; they truly are voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and blatantly illegal imprisonment."
Federal courts have ruled that the standard waiting time for treatment is seven days - a far cry from the average of 391 days that the 25 most recent patients from Philly waited before being transferred from prison to a state hospital for treatment.
One patient waited 589 days, more than a year-and-a-half, the suit alleges.
The 11 named plaintiffs - a majority of whom are from Philly - seek class-action status for all of the patients who have sought treatment at the state's two forensic hospitals: Norristown State Hospital in Montgomery County and Torrance State Hospital, about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh.
There are only 200 beds between the two facilities, a shortage that has caused some potential patients' "mental health to deteriorate," and forced some to spend more time in prison waiting for treatment than they would have for a guilty conviction, according to the suit.
The filing highlights the recent slaying of Daryl Warthen, 52, an inmate in the city's Industrial Correctional Center who was allegedly murdered by his cellmate, Sylvester Smith, in April.
Warthen was waiting for an open spot at the Norristown facility when he was killed, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs also seek class-action status for patients who have been transferred into the facilities, but remain there after being ruled "unlikely to regain competency," and therefore will never go to trial in their criminal proceedings.
Federal regulations state that the hospitals should develop discharge schedules and plans to integrate those patients into community-treatment programs. However, the lawsuit alleges that the two hospitals routinely fail to do so.
One patient has been at the Torrance facility for at least three years, and spent seven years at a different, now-defunct state hospital before that.