The Alaska Public Defender Agency and the Disability Law Center of Alaska are suing the state to try and stop the practice of taking people to jail when there is no room at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

The practice has been increasing, according to Disability Law Center attorney Joanna Cahoon, ever since the facility closed beds in October of 2018 because of a staffing shortage.

Superior Court Judge William Morse held a hearing Tuesday on the groups' request for a preliminary injunction against the practice.

API has been under extensive scrutiny in recent years, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy privatized its leadership earlier this year under a $1-million-per-month contract with Wellpath Recovery Solutions. On Monday, state ombudsman Kate Burkhart issued a report that found allegations of abuses at API to be justified.

Cahoon said patients who are under court order to get a psychiatric evaluation, because they've been deemed a threat to themselves or others, are instead being held in jails and hospital emergency rooms until something opens up at API. She said the state has put patients in an involuntary holding pattern, when they should be getting treatment.

"We don't want API to have to admit people that they don't have room for or that it's unsafe for. But we don't think it's right for the state to take no action and do nothing to respond to people's rights in the meantime," Cahoon said.

Deputy Public Defender Linda Beecher has been keeping track of psychiatric clients with the public defender's office who've been held at the jail involuntarily starting in October of last year while they wait to be evaluated at API.

"I've identified 60 instances, approximately 60 instances, where individuals have been held in a penal setting without any criminal court order requiring them to be held in corrections or in a jail," Beecher said.

Beecher said some clients had been held for as long as two weeks while they waited for space to open up. She said none of those people were charged with crimes, but were treated like criminals nonetheless, strip-searched and placed in a cell.

"They're treated exactly like any other inmate," she said. "In fact, the conditions of confinement are harsher because they're not allowed to mingle with the normal population so they are actually more restricted to their cells. The conditions are quite harsh, they are quite unforgiving; it's a pretty brutal situation for individuals with mental illness to be held in a correctional setting."

The Public Defender Agency is asking Morse to stop the state from placing psychiatric patients awaiting transport to API in Alaska Department of Corrections facilities.

The Disability Law Center outlined their request of the judge in an email. It includes:

• stop unlawfully housing respondents ( people subject to civil commitment orders) in jail or DOC custody.
• either provide evaluations required by law at the hospitals where respondents are held or release them from custody.
• ensure respondents are immediately notified of their rights, provided a copy of the order authorizing their detention, and given the contact information for their court appointed attorney.

Wellpath is charged with hiring more staff to make all 80 beds at the facility available by the end of June. API also released a policy statement in which it says it will do regular capacity checks to see if beds are available and make sure that information gets to facilities where patients are being held.

The hearing is expected to continue in the coming days, with the state presenting witnesses on its behalf.

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