By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin appeals court rejected a schizophrenic inmate’s request for a new sentence because she can’t get proper mental health care at Wisconsin’s largest women’s prison, ruling Wednesday that problems at the facility are nothing new.
Taycheedah Correctional Institution’s inability to provide its inmates with appropriate health care is well-known and doesn’t constitute a new factor that would justify revisiting Heather Lee Bender’s sentence, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled in a unanimous decision. In an unusual addendum to its decision, the court called Bender’s case “heart-breaking.”
“This may be one of those rare occasions when, to quote Charles Dickens, ‘the law is an ass,’” the appeal judges said in their conclusion.
Bender’s attorney, Dana LesMonde, said she was disappointed with the ruling but took some comfort in the court’s closing comments.
“The last paragraph shows how woefully inadequate the criminal justice system is at dealing with people like my client who have serious mental health issues,” LesMonde said. “I’m very concerned at this point for my client’s well-being.”
Taycheedah has been criticized for years for substandard inmate care. In 2006 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that medical, mental and dental care at the prison was grossly deficient, causing inmates great physical pain and mental anguish. The ACLU reached a settlement with the state Department of Corrections last summer that called for the prison to attain medical accreditation, hire a new associate medical director and abide by new care standards.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections had no immediate comment.
According to court documents, Bender, now 33, suffers from schizophrenia, delusional thinking and hallucinations. She often hears absent family members calling to her and sees strangers’ faces morph into the faces of family members or demons.
She ended up in Taycheedah after a series of episodes that began in August 2008, when she ran into a Racine automotive shop and began yelling and acting strangely. Police responded and found drug paraphernalia and marijuana on her. She was sentenced to two years of probation, but that was later revoked for a number of violations, including failing to complete drug treatment.
In August 2009, Racine County Circuit Judge Faye M. Flancher sentenced Bender to three years in prison, with half the time to be served behind bars and the other half on supervision. The judge said she felt Bender could receive better treatment in prison.
At Taycheedah, though, Bender regressed, shouting out family members’ names for hours, wandering around and resisting staff. She accumulated 270 days in solitary, according to the court documents.
Bender argued on appeal that Flancher improperly sentenced her based on her mental illness. She also cited Taycheedah’s inability to treat inmates with severe mental illness as additional grounds for resentencing. She pointed to an opinion U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa issued in the ACLU’s case in November 2009 that detailed systemic problems in Taycheedah’s staffing, facilities and procedures. The opinion was released three months after she was sentenced, amounting to a new factor, she argued.
The appeals court noted that Flancher cited Bender’s criminal history, her failure to complete drug treatment and a lack of proper care in jail as justification for the prison sentence.
As for whether the lack of care at Taycheedah amounted to a new factor, the court noted the ACLU filed its case in 2006 and problems with prisoner care at the facility have become well-known over the last decade.
Nothing suggests Flancher was unaware of those issues and the judge may have been hoping improvements were under way. Bender did receive some treatment at Taycheedah, the ruling said. Flancher remarked during a post-conviction hearing that she was “saddened” the treatment wasn’t what she had envisioned for Bender, but maintained Bender would have gotten no help whatsoever in jail, according to the opinion.
“The trial court called this case heart-breaking. We can think of no better word,” the appeal judges wrote. “TCI rightfully has come under criticism … for being ill-equipped to appropriately address the serious mental health needs of inmates like Bender. That said, given Bender’s probation violations and the limited options available, we must agree with the trial court that TCI’s shortcomings do not constitute a new factor.”