The Behavioral Health Unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary is where the sickest mentally ill offenders end up.

They can be there for a few months, a couple of years, or longer.

In 2015, the nonprofit Disability Rights Oregon investigated the unit and found the 40 men who lived there spent an average of at least 23 hours a day in their cells.

That is widely accepted as psychologically harmful, especially for someone who’s already mentally ill.

Disability Rights Oregon attorney Joel Greenburg said that the Department of Corrections, under threat of lawsuit, did begin to increase inmates’ time out of their cells, but a new report shows the improvement has stopped

“They made some initial progress towards increasing that amount of time. However, at the end of the second quarter of 2017, those numbers took a real nose dive and were almost for a time back where we started,” he said.

One explanation for the problem is that the unit has experienced a lot of staff turn-over recently. The staff that remained had to spend time training the new staff, so they didn’t have time to let offenders out of their cells.

Greenburg says inmates are also setting off a number of sprinklers in their cells by popping out a piece in the sprinkler heads. Cleanup meant staff again didn’t have time to let offenders out.

About 40 of Oregon's sickest mentally ill offenders live at the Behavioral Health Unit at the state pen.

About 40 of Oregon’s sickest mentally ill offenders live at the Behavioral Health Unit at the state pen.

Disability Rights Oregon

The Department of Corrections and Disability Rights Oregon have signed a memorandum of understanding over the use of solitary confinement. The aim is that in two years, the state will give inmates at least 20 hours a week outside their cells for treatment, exercise and socialization.

That still means about 21 hours a day confined to a cell.

But if the state can’t reach that goal, Disability Rights Oregon could move forward with a lawsuit. Greenburg said they’re trying the memorandum first in the hope the state improve conditions with money it doesn’t have to spend on a lawsuit.

In a letter responding to the new Disability Rights Oregon study, the Department of Corrections said it has worked diligently to lay the foundation and framework to meet the goals of the memorandum of understanding.

In addition, the state said it’s opening a new treatment building in June; increasing the outdoor recreational space; increasing security and treatment staffing; collaborating with experts in treating mental illness; increasing training opportunities for staff; increasing group treatment classes; increasing ‘unstructured’ time, and creating new opportunities to build a more therapeutic environment.

Builders life part of the new treatment wing for the Behavioral Health Unit over the prison wall at the state penitentiary.

Builders life part of the new treatment wing for the Behavioral Health Unit over the prison wall at the state penitentiary.

Oregon Department of Corrections

Oregon Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters signed the letter. It said the department’s staff “work tirelessly every day to ensure the betterment of the individuals we work with and supervise.”