State Office of Mental Health in a blustery press release says a “first of the nation” residential mental health unit has opened at Marcy Correctional Facility in Oneida County, the result of a 2007 court settlement which forced the state to move mentally ill inmates out of the SHUs (special housing units).
The program, developed by the state Office of Mental Health with the Corrections Department, began taking the first of about 100 inmates in December from various prisons around the state who reside in or are candidates for the notorious special housing (the box, or solitary confinement) and have serious mental illness. The advocacy law firm that won the case against NY state is proud of achieving reform, as are supporters, considering the state has spent almost three years and over $50 million to set it up.
The state was forced to budget $57 million to convert one of its two-story cell blocks at Marcy to the new facility after an out of court settlement in 2007 with Disability Advocates, Inc. of Albany and its law partners. The not for profit law firm, which has won other high-profile lawsuits against the state, claimed that prisoners were put in solitary confinement or lockdown in their own cells because of infractions that were often brought about by their mental illness, not unruly behavior from other causes.
It also charged that disproportionate numbers of mentally ill inmates have been placed in special housing and have spent longer terms there, some for years. This is discriminatory and abusive. Special housing units in NY State prisons consist of locked steel boxes or cages with no amenities where the inmate is locked in for 23 of every 24 hours, given one hour of recreation. The practice, which NYS prisons feature, has brought outcries from families, including those in a prisoners' rights group called MHASC (mental health alternatives to solitary confinement). This group calls the confining boxes torture chambers and has pushed for a SHU bill in the legislature for years to end special housing in prison for the mentally ill altogether. The SHU bill asks the state to review inmates' disciplinary sentences, including those with the most difficult to treat symptoms, in order to remove them from solitary confinement.
Freed from a cell up to four hours a day
According to the state's release, the new facility will replace solitary and offer three or four hours a day for treatment and recreation. When the agreement was announced in April 2007, Cliff Zucker, executive director for Disability Advocates, said “It's going to make a tremendous difference. There are people with serious mental illness who are very, very ill in SHU receiving little treatment and many of those people are discharged directly from those solitary confinement cells to the street.”
MHASC has written that the settlement would make conditions better for mentally ill inmates but improvements were still needed. Keeping people with psychiatric disabilities in isolation units amounts to torture and often exacerbates their illness, they said. They cited cases in which inmates have taken their own lives under those conditions and put the safety of correction officers and others at risk, according to the NY Times (April 23, 2007).
The court agreement came at a time when the legislature, led by Jeff Aubrey in the Assembly and Mike Nozzolio in the Senate, was struggling to pass identical bills that would outlaw putting mentally ill inmates in the special housing. Those bills would set up the residence program and add staff from mental health and corrections to manage these inmates. They also called for more training and an oversight commission to look into abuses of the mentally ill in prison. The bills finally passed, to be implemented in 2011. Then Governor Eliot Spitzer cut back on some provisions and moved to delay its start till 2014. Advocates argued successfully to restore 2011 for startup last summer.
State officials are crowing
Now for the latest release. It says the new facility has opened and “participants will have the opportunity to develop skills that address their individual needs, with at least four hours a day of out of cell treatment and programming, primarily in open group settings. Congregate exercise will be allowed for inmates who have demonstrated treatment progress.” It says earlier steps have included screening on admission for all inmates, a wide array of treatment programs and special attention to aftercare when they're released (per OMH Commissioner Michael Hogan).
But a lawyer at Disability Advocates has some questions in the early going. She said while many prisoners are designated as having serious mental illness, not all have been designated with serious mental illness who should be. The big goal is the quality of the program, she pointed out, and people should be assessed so they have this program if needed. Some of those have BHUs, behavioral health units, for the men where they already get four hours a day out of the cell in the later phases., but the program has not been a success, with few inmates graduating and now it has a very low enrollment. The RMHU (residential mental health unit) will need to be different. Corrections officers will have to be well trained and stay with the program, she added.
The mentally ill shouldn't be in there at all
It's the remorseless tone of the state press release that gets you down. They don't admit to any wrong. They think the world should reward them for what they've done to help. Sure, the settlement is a triumph for the law firm in Albany, the families and the men themselves. But look at this: Here are men who are very sick, who may well have been jailed because of what their mental illness caused, not their being criminals with prior records. They've been pushed around by a hide-bound prison system that rewards order and discipline and punishes slowness to react and follow directions. Some can't adjust to those conditions. If they are stuck in solitary, their illness gets worse in these tiny cells and causes them to become more disruptive than before. That in turn, lengthens their sentence in the SHU.
The court agreed that these men are being abused and maltreated because of their mental illness. But in its first resounding statement to mark the opening of its “new Jerusalem” facility, NY State goes on record as saying the new program “builds on 15 years of enhanced services for inmates with mental illness.” The state fails to accept that tens of thousands of mentally ill prisoners—fathers and sons and husbands, people we know, have been thrust into these awful cells. And they all have to come out of there some day. Instead, the state boasts about how good it will be for some of them, up to 100 at a time, to get three or four hours out of a cell each day instead of one hour.
The press release calls this “the most comprehensive and complex mental health prison treatment program developed in the US in the past 20 years.” One might add that only in New York, with its regressive prison mentality toward the mentally ill do they need such a momentous change of policy. They've spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money on the new prison blocks with their uncompromising rows of steel cells. The prison unions seem to have gotten what they want out of this: more than $50 million in new construction, hiring a considerable number of additional security guards and special training for the guards and their supervisors to manage things in the new residence units. The press release says this would be one-week training, which won't go very far unless the men are well motivated.
What they're doing is still a long way from what is needed. Someone mentally sick and disruptive should get help through the Kendra's Law program and alternative treatment courts before they have to go to jail or prison. They need to hook up with medical treatment and services in the community, and someone should be held responsible to see they stay on medicine. If they can't make it they need to be placed in temporary hospital custody where treatment is at hand, as many times as necessary; not put in the unholy places our prisons have become. (Roy Neville)