NEWS: New York Advocates Offer Testimony to Assembly Hearings on Mental Health in Prisons and Jails

Several key supporters of CAIC presented or submitted testimony to the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Corrections and Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health, which held a joint hearing on “Public Hearing on Mental Illness in Correctional Settings” in Albany on November 13, 2014. A collection of testimony appears below, and will be permanently archived on the Resources page.

Correctional Association of New York

Disability Rights New York

Incarcerated Nation Corp.

Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

NAMI – NYS

New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

New York City Jails Action Coalition

Urban Justice Center

For more on the hearing, see the following news accounts:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ny-lawmakers-probe-care-mentally-ill-inmates-26878665

http://m.timesunion.com/local/article/Learning-to-treat-prisoners-with-signs-of-mental-5891924.php

 

NEWS: New York Lawmakers Probe Care for Mentally Ill in Prison

By Michael Virtanen. Reprinted from the Associated Press

hearingThe head of the troubled New York City jail system said Thursday it’s critical to send mentally ill inmates to treatment programs instead of a lockup.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte told state lawmakers that Rikers Island is poorly equipped to be a mental health treatment center. The primary goal, one he shares with the medical staff, is to keep staff and inmates safe, he said.

“Violence at Rikers Island the past five or six years has gone through the roof,” Ponte said, adding that assaults on his medical staff have tripled.

Dr. Homer Venters, head of the jail’s health services, testified alongside Ponte. He said admission medical screenings done on every incoming inmate show about 25 percent have mental illnesses, though that diagnosis applies to about 38 percent of the daily population of about 11,500. Those inmates tend to stay twice as long.

Ponte said they’ve taken steps, like limiting solitary confinement, to improve treatment at Rikers, but acknowledged many issues remain. The city also has recently established some courts, including one in Manhattan, focused on handling cases involving the mentally ill.

“We’ve become the de facto mental hospitals,” Ponte said of the jails. “Diversion is critical.”

New York City jails have come under increasing scrutiny since The Associated Press earlier this year first exposed the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates — an ex-Marine imprisoned in Rikers who an official said “basically baked to death” in a 101-degree cell and a diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone for seven days inside a cell last fall.

Lawmakers called the joint hearing of Assembly committees on correction and mental health following these and other reports of afflicted prisoners getting inadequate care.

The hearing also examined other local jails, where suspects go while awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, as well as the state’s prisons that house about 52,250 inmates with longer sentences.

About 9,300 state inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, with 2,300 considered seriously mentally ill, said Donna Hall, director of forensic services at the state Office of Mental Health, which provides treatment. She said the clinicians seldom, if ever, remove or lower those designations.

Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York testified that most remain in the general prison population and get limited services. Fewer illnesses now are judged serious, which would give those inmates more care and keep them from the “torture” of solitary confinement, he said.

Alicia Barazza tearfully told legislators that her 21-year-old son suffered from severe mental illness and committed suicide two weeks ago in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison. He’d gone off his psychotropic medications and had been in crisis, she said. He was sent to prison from Albany County at 17 for third-degree arson. His mother said he’d been abused by another inmate in prison.

Corrections officials declined to comment, citing the potential of a lawsuit.

Advocates said one recurring problem is defendants not allowed by police to take their medications after they’re arrested.

Glenn Leibman of the Mental Health Association called for presumptively enrolling inmates in Medicaid so they can get needed prescriptions when they leave.

Damian DePauw, 35, said he went to Washington County Jail on an assault charge after a violent psychiatric episode. In jail, when he felt symptoms worsening, he said he told a guard he needed medicine and was told to wait for the nurse that night, who said she’d need a prescription from the jail psychiatrist three days later. Over the weekend, he became more delusional, assaulted another prisoner who had threatened him, was stripped and put into a solitary cell, where he rammed his head into the metal door repeatedly, in an effort to knock himself out, until he split open his scalp and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, he said.

NEWS: New York City Officials and Advocates Push for Change to the “Culture of Brutality” on Rikers Island

By Savannah Crowley. Excerpted from Solitary Watch.

Update, 8/22/14:  On Thursday, August 21, the New York City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens that would require corrections officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Presenting this information to the New York City Board of Corrections would create increased transparency and oversight concerning the jail’s use of punitive segregation. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Mayor de Blasio, who has said he supports the bill.

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New York City advocates and public officials gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to demand an end to the “culture of brutality” emerging from New York City’s Rikers Island, the second biggest jail in the country. The demand followed recent reports released by the United States Department of Justice and the New York City Board of Corrections, as well as months of investigative reporting by the New York Times, exposing brutality, violence, and excessive use of solitary confinement by officers specifically against mentally ill and teenage inmates. One previously incarcerated advocate that spoke at the event described Rikers as “worse than Dante’s Inferno.”

At the press conference, organized by the New York City Jails Action Coalition, speakers expressed support for legislation introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens that would bring about much needed transparency and oversight to Rikers. The bill will be voted on this Thursday in the City Council. Speaking at the event, Dromm recounted his tour of Rikers saying, “I saw the horrible conditions inside of solitary people have to endure—a very small cell, the smell of urine, graffiti, a bed that was rusted, a mattress that had mildew on it, a blower of heat directly on top of the bed blowing down.” Strong criticism of Rikers Island has surfaced most recently after a series of exposes in the New York Times covering the staggering rise in violence at Rikers since 2009.

The Times managed to uncover an internal report conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that documented, during an 11 month period, 129 cases of violence by corrections officers towards prisoners yielding injuries so serious they could not be treated at the jail’s clinic. Individuals incarcerated at Rikers suffered fractured jaws and eye sockets, wounds needing stitches, and severe back and head trauma. The report found that 77 percent of those seriously injured had a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet in not one of the 129 cases was a corrections officer prosecuted.  Over half of the 80 prisoners interviewed by health department staff admitted to being intimidated by officers during their treatment, making it easier for staff to cover up the violent episodes.

According to the same article, about 4,000 out of 11,000 people held at Rikers have a mental illness. This number is about 40 percent of the jail population, a 20 percent increase from eight years ago. Few corrections officers have received any in-depth training on how to deal with individuals with mental illness.

Criticism of policies at Rikers Island continued to rise after August 4, when the United States Department of Justice unveiled a secret three-year investigation of Rikers conducted from 2011 to 2013. The investigation concluded that there is a “deep seated culture of violence” at the jail and that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has violated the civil rights of adolescent males ages 16 to 18, by subjecting them to and not protecting them from excessive force and violence. For example, the report said, “In FY [Fiscal Year] 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents… (resulting in 1,057 injuries).”Teenagers at Rikers suffered extreme violence by officers including “…broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.”

Read more here.

NEWS: Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail

By Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz. Excerpted from the New York Times.

After being arrested on a misdemeanor charge following a family dispute last year, Jose Bautista was unable to post $250 bail and ended up in a jail cell on Rikers Island.

A few days later, he tore his underwear, looped it around his neck and tried to hang himself from the cell’s highest bar. Four correction officers rushed in and cut him down. But instead of notifying medical personnel, they handcuffed Mr. Bautista, forced him to lie face down on the cell floor and began punching him with such force, according to New York City investigators, that he suffered a perforated bowel and needed emergency surgery.

Just a few weeks earlier, Andre Lane was locked in solitary confinement in a Rikers cellblock reserved for inmates with mental illnesses when he became angry at the guards for not giving him his dinner and splashed them with either water or urine. Correction officers handcuffed him to a gurney and transported him to a clinic examination room beyond the range of video cameras where, witnesses say, several guards beat him as members of the medical staff begged for them to stop. The next morning, the walls and cabinets of the examination room were still stained with Mr. Lane’s blood.

The assaults on Mr. Bautista and Mr. Lane were not isolated episodes. Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail, a four-month investigation by The New York Times found.

Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view.

But The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence…

Read the rest here.

NEWS: Death of Schizophrenic Rikers Inmate Left in Cell Ruled a Homicide

By the Associated Press. Reprinted from SILive.com.

NEW YORK — The death of a seriously mentally ill and diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself after seven days in a New York City jail cell has been ruled a homicide, the city medical examiner’s office said Monday.

Spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said the cause of 39-year-old Bradley Ballard’s September 2013 death on Rikers Island was diabetic ketoacidosis with a contributing factor of genital ischemia. Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when people don’t have enough insulin and the liver breaks down fat instead, which can be fatal. Ischemia occurs when tissues don’t get enough oxygen and die.

Ballard, who family members said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was discovered lying in his own feces in a cell with a rubber band tied around his scrotum. He had been confined to his cell in a mental observation unit at Rikers for seven days for making a lewd gesture at a female guard, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Documents obtained by the AP show Ballard was not given his medication for much of the time he spent locked in his cell in a mental observation unit. The documents show he was checked on dozens of times by correction officers but never taken out of his cell until he was found unresponsive.

The Department of Correction, citing a pending and ongoing investigation, declined to comment. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office didn’t immediately comment.

Curtis Griffin, Ballard’s stepfather, said, “It’s hard to believe that things got this bad. You can’t cover these things up. Bradley is not the only one. If they don’t know what their job is they shouldn’t be there.”

Ballard’s death and the death of another inmate who died in an overheated cell have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule an oversight hearing. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new task force that would overhaul how the corrections system treats the mentally ill.

NEWS: Treating Humans Worse Than Animals: Solitary Confinement in New York Featured on “Democracy Now!”

Reprinted from Democracy Now!

Following the death of two prisoners at New York City’s Rikers Island facility, we look at mounting pressure on jails and prisons to reform their use of solitary confinement. A corrections officer was arrested last week and charged with violating the civil rights of Jason Echevarria, a mentally ill Rikers prisoner who died after eating a packet of detergent given to him when his cell was flooded with sewage. It was the first such arrest in more than a decade. Also last month, Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill homeless veteran, died in a Rikers solitary mental-observation unit where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. An official told the Associated Press that Murdough “baked to death” after temperatures soared in his cell.

We hear from Echevarria’s father, Ramon, at a protest seeking justice for his son, and speak to former Rikers prisoner Five Mualimmak, who was held in solitary there. And we are joined by two guests from within the prison system calling for reform: Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who is helping reduce violence in prisons, and Lance Lowry, president of the Texas Correctional Employees, the union which represents Texas prison guards. Lowry is calling on the state to reduce the use of solitary confinement, including on death row. “Zookeepers are not allowed to keep zoo animals in the kind of housing that we put human beings in,” Dr. Gilligan says. “We have created the situation; it is called a self-fulfilling prophecy: We say these are animals, they are going to behave like animals, then we treat them so that they will.”

To watch the video segment or read the full transcript, click here.

VOICES: Doing “Bing Time”: Memories of a Mental Health Worker in Rikers Island’s Solitary Confinement Unit

A cell in Rikers Island's Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

A cell in Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following post is a chapter from an unpublished book by Mary Buser, who worked in various capacities in the mental health system on Rikers Island. In Buser’s own words: “I worked in the Rikers Mental Health Department as a psychiatric social worker for five and a half years, leaving Rikers in 2000. I started off as a student intern in the island’s sole women’s jail…[and] returned to Rikers to work in a maximum security men’s jail…[then] was promoted to assistant chief of Mental Health in another jail, where I supervised treatment to the island’s most severely mentally ill inmates. From there, I was transferred to my fourth and final jail, which was connected to the “Central Punitive Segregation Unit,” aka, the Bing. Here, I supervised a mental health team in treating inmates held in solitary confinement–determining whether or not someone warranted a temporary reprieve based on the likelihood of a completed suicide. Although I had become disillusioned with the criminal justice system, the Bing was my Rikers undoing. The final section of my manuscript is focused on my daily trips to the Bing, the inmates who occupied these cells, and my struggle to justify doing this work.” Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved in the episodes Buser describes.

As jails have come to replace psychiatric hospitals as repositories for people with mental illness, Rikers become one of the nation’s largest inpatient mental health centers (second only to the L.A. County Jail). A disproportionate number of these psychiatrically disabled individuals end up in solitary confinement, doing “Bing time” for rule infractions precipitated by their illness. Buser’s account of her time overseeing treatment in “the Bing” is of particular interest now, when years of activism by the Jails Action Coalition and two scathing reports commissioned by the New York City Board of Correction have finally spurred efforts to reduce the use of solitary and improve mental health treatment on Rikers. These efforts have thusfar yielded at best mixed results. –James Ridgeway

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At the end of a long cinderblock corridor, a guard in an elevated booth passes the time with a paperback book.  Across from the booth, a barred gate cordons off a dim passageway.  Along the passageway wall are the words:  CENTRAL PUNITIVE SEGREGATION UNIT.

The guard looks up as I approach, and nods.  As acting chief of “Mental Health,” I’m a regular over here at the “Bing” – an unlikely nickname for this five-story tower of nothing but solitary cells — 100 of them on each floor.  Designed for Rikers Island’s most recalcitrant inmates, the occupants of these cells have been pulled out of general population for fighting, weapons possession, disobeying orders, assault on staff.  The guards refer to them as “the baddest of the bad” – “the worst of the worst.”  I’m not so sure about that.

The guard throws a switch and the barred gate shudders and starts opening.  Around a bend, I step into an elevator car.  Since the problem inmate is on the third floor, I hold up three fingers to a corner camera, waiting to be spotted on a TV monitor.  This is no ordinary elevator — no buttons to push here, likely engineered for some security purpose.  The sweaty little box starts lifting, and as the muffled wails of the punished echo through, my stomach tightens — the way it does every time I’m called over here, which is often.  Solitary confinement is punishment taken to the extreme, inducing the bleakest of depression, plunging despair, and terrifying hallucinations.  The Mental Health Department looms large in a solitary unit – doling out anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills.  If these inmates had no mental health issues before they entered solitary, they do now.  But even the most potent medications reach only so far, and when they can no longer hold a person’s psyche together – when human behavior deteriorates into frantic scenes of self-mutilation and makeshift nooses – we’re called to a cell door.

The elevator rattles open on the third floor.  Ahead, a foreboding window separates two plain doors, each one leading onto a 50-cell wing.  Behind the window, correctional staff hover over paperwork.  A logbook is thrust out, I sign it, and point to the door on the left, ‘3 South.’  When the knob buzzes, I pull the door open and step into what feels like a furnace.  A long cement floor is lined with gray steel doors that face each other – twenty-five on one side, twenty-five on the other.  Each door has a small window at the top, and on the bottom, a flap for food trays.

At the far end, Dr. Diaz and Pete Majors are waiting for me.  I hesitate for a moment, dreading the walk through the gauntlet of misery.  The smell of vomit and feces hangs in the hot, thick air.  Bracing myself, I start past the doors, trying to stay focused on my colleagues.  Still, I can see their faces – dark-skinned, young – pressed up against the cell windows, eyes wild with panic.  “Miss! Help!  Please, Miss!!”  They bang and slap the doors, sweaty palms sliding down the windows.  “We’re dying in here, Miss – we’re dying!”  Resisting my natural instinct to rush to their aid, I keep going, reminding myself that there’s a reason they’re in here – that they’ve done something to warrant this punishment.  The guards, themselves sweat-soaked and agitated, amble from cell to cell, pounding the doors with their fists, spinning around and kicking them with boot heels — “SHUT—THE  FUCK– UPPP!!

[Read more…]

NEWS: As New York City Jails Amend Their Solitary Confinement Practices, Abuses on Rikers Island Continue

rikers demo 1By Aviva Stahl. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

In early January the Wall Street Journal reported that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) had ceased using solitary confinement as a form of punishment for people with mental illness. The last of the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (MHAUII) units was shuttered on December 31, replaced by a two-tiered system said to improve treatment. The step was hailed a significant achievement for outgoing DOC City Commissioner Dora Schriro, whose department came under fire this past fall after two reports lambasted the DOC for violating its own standards in its treatment of the mentally ill.

However, a meeting on Tuesday morning of the Board of Correction (BOC), an independent body that monitors the City’s jail system, presented a far different picture of conditions for individuals with mental illness on Rikers Island – as well as a different version of how changes in the DOC’s solitary confinement policies have come about.

Just after 8 am on Tuesday, in the chilly morning rain, activists from the advocacy group Jails Action Coalition (JAC) stood on the sidewalk outside the municipal office building on Worth Street where the BOC was scheduled to meet. They were holding a vigil for the four individuals who have died in City jails in the past three months, carrying tombstone-shaped posters reading “RIKERS=DEATH” beside a makeshift alter with four candles, and singing and chanting to the people passing by.

Leah, a longtime JAC activist, explained that she had braved the weather for the sake of her godson, who has a psychiatric disability and is currently incarcerated on Rikers Island. She was waiting to see whether the recent changes made by the DOC would actually have an impact on the people inside. As she explained, sometimes the DOC enacts new policies to appease the citizenry “but really, it’s the same old thing.”

At just past nine o’clock the vigil participants passed through security and joined the BOC meeting on the third floor. The bulk of time was dedicated to discussing the quality of care at the recently developed Restrictive Housing Units (RHU) and Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) program, the facilities meant to replace MHAUII. According to DOC protocol, individuals who violate prison rules will now be sent to one of the two units: the RHU for those who are deemed less severely ill, who will still spend time in solitary but have access to therapeutic services; and the CAPS unit, modeled after a psychiatric hospital, for those with more serious illnesses.

According to the WSJ article, prison advocates were somewhat critical of the proposed changes after they were announced, calling the RHU model “far too punitive” and expressing concerns that individuals with mental illness might be placed in CAPS regardless of whether they broke the rules. The Board’s initial discussion seemed to support many of their concerns.

BOC members shared the details of their first site visit, on December 5, to the newly opened RHU at Rose M Singer Center (RMSC), the main women’s jail on Rikers. According to the Honorable Bryanne Hamill, a former New York Family Court judge,  Board staff asked for assistance from a nearby corrections officer when one woman – who had smeared feces on the window of her cell – failed to respond to their knocks. The CO opened the food slot in the cell’s solid steel door and shined light inside, but was still unable to ascertain if the occupant was conscious.

At the prodding of BOC members, the CO summoned four captains – but it was not until the Board notified Commissioner Schriro that the door was eventually unlocked. The woman was found unresponsive on the floor under the bed with a ligature wrapped around her neck. By the time the woman was taken out of her cell by medical staff, nearly an hour had passed since the visitors had first arrived at her door. Judge Hamill added that she spoke to another prisoner who told her that the unresponsive woman had been threatening suicide; Hamill reassured her that the woman had been found alive.

BOC member Dr Robert L. Cohen, a key player in efforts to reform solitary on Rikers, also participated in site visits. Cohen stressed that neither the COs nor the leadership in NYC’s prisons seemed prepared for the task at hand.  Although the RHU program at Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) technically opened on December 19th, Cohen reported that the jail’s warden was “not aware that there was an RHU at OBCC” when Cohen spoke to her on January 3. Cohen also emphasized his concern that the DOC has no plan to identify and train officers and captain staff who are willing to work in the units on a regular basis.

Both Dr. Cohen and Judge Hamill expressed disappointment that access to therapeutic programming in the RHU had so far been almost non-existent. They did, however, have some praise for the new mental health programs established at the DOC, noting that they were greatly impressed with the ongoing quality of care in the CAPS units.

At the end of the meeting, Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and a member of JAC, spoke about her own visit to the RHU at RMSC, which occurred just days after the BOC’s.  One woman held in the unit relayed to Parish what had happened after she told the BOC member (presumably Judge Hamill) that the woman found unconscious had been threatening suicide. After the Board members left the prison, she said, a CO approached her cell to tell her, “there won’t be any food for you.” Parish expressed frustration that this kind of retaliation of could go on even when BOC was involved.

Commissioner Schriro’s voice cracked with emotion as the meeting came to a close. Schriro, who is leaving the DOC to take a job in Connecticut, has been broadly praised for the recent changes in DOC policy, and commented to the press that her department was “proud to have met this significant milestone.”  In truth, however, solitary confinement increased significantly under Schriro’s tenure. In 2011 alone the number of punitive segregation cells at Rikers grew by 45 percent,  and by the time the  BOC-commissioned reports were released this past fall, New York City had one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) pressed particularly hard for the increase in punitive bed space, attributing a spike in attacks on COs to the backlog of prisoners waiting to serve time in “the Bing,” as solitary confinement on Rikers is called. At a November 2011 City Council meeting, Schriro was grilled by City Council member Elizabeth Crowley about the problem.  Schriro reassured her that capacity was being expanded as quickly as possible: ” Every bed that can be converted is being converted.”

Community groups maintain that the DOC only considered adopting new policies as a result of the press fall-out from the BOC-commissioned reports – and that the reports were, in turn, ordered as a result of the campaigning of JAC and other advocates. Those same factors, along with pressure from a few BOC members, led the Board in September to vote to commence “rule-making” to eventually set new policies limiting the use of solitary in City jails.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Commissioner Schriro, but her legacy is not the only thing in flux. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has yet announce to his appointment to the post of DOC commissioner, and there are mixed signals as to whether he will live up to the progressive image he cultivated during his campaign.

Last Friday at Brooklyn College, DeBlasio emceed the graduation for the DOC’s newest recruits, telling them: “You’re protecting all of us….You’re protecting each other. You have each other’s backs. And you’re also protecting some people who have made mistakes.” He continued, “We’re not happy with some of the choices those individuals made, but they’re still our fellow citizens, and we’re hopefully in the process of helping them back to a better path.”

Yet there are some red flags to suggest substantial prison reform isn’t on DeBlasio’s agenda. Bill Bratton, the mayor’s appointment for police commissioner, has pursued racially discriminatory policing policies in the past.  Moreover, during his campaign DeBlasio was endorsed by COBA – a worrying sign for advocates, given that the role the union played in increasing the use of solitary and their resistance to adopting alternative solutions.

For Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney in the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, the BOC’s experiences on the tour reveal the deeply protracted nature of the problems within the DOC.  She wondered aloud what it means that it took an hour for the woman’s cell door to be opened, even when BOC members were present.  She added that challenging this institutional culture will be an “incredibly hard” task for the DOC, but that doing so is absolutely necessary if things are to change.

For Daisy Rodriguez, another member of JAC, these changes cannot come quickly enough. Her 21-year-old son has been in solitary confinement in New York’s jails for the past 18 months.  She told the audience at the meeting, “We want our families to obtain the services they need rather than be treated like animals.”

NEWS: Reports Condemn Solitary Confinement in New York City’s Jails, As Officials Weigh Its Future

By Marlies Talay. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

rikers wireTwo recent reports provide a scathing picture of how solitary confinement is employed as a routine disciplinary measure on Rikers Island and in other city jails. The reports are particularly critical of the use of extreme isolation and deprivation on individuals with psychological disabilities, including mentally ill teenagers.

The two reports were prepared for the Board of Correction (BOC), which functions as the oversight agency for the New York City jail system, ensuring that all city correctional facilities comply with minimum regulations of care. In recent months, under pressure from local activists, the BOC has been reconsidering the liberal use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails, and conducting fact-finding on the subject.

The first of two reports commissioned by the BOC was released in September 2013. Dr. James Gilligan and Dr. Bandy Lee authored the report, addressing the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails.  This past June, Dr. Gilligan and Dr. Lee were asked to assess whether the city’s jails were in compliance with the current Mental Health Minimum Standards set forth by the Board of Correction.

On Rikers Island, which houses more than 10,000 of the 13,000 women, men and children in the city’s jails, 1 in every 10 people is in isolated confinement at any time.  Many are placed there for nonviolent offenses at the discretion of corrections officers.  This distinguishes New York as a city with one of the highest rates of prison isolation in the country–about double the national average.

The report’s findings are a resounding criticism of the current use of punitive segregation, and point both to violations of the Mental Health Minimum Standards as well as to practices within the jail system that are harmful to those who suffer from mental illness. The report’s authors point to snapshot data in which the number of people with mental illness in solitary confinement is almost double the number of those with mental illness in the jail population generally. The authors conclude that mentally ill people in the jail system are being disproportionately placed in solitary confinement.

The report also claims that the nation’s prisons and jails have become “de facto mental hospitals,” pointing to the fact that roughly 95% of people with mental illness who are currently institutionalized are in correctional facilities, while only 5% are in mental hospitals.

The Mental Health Minimum Standards mandate that mental healthcare be provided in a setting that is conducive to care and treatment. The report contends that prolonged use of solitary confinement for mentally ill people violates these Standards, because it has been used punitively, to create a stressful environment and to remove social contact, rather than to provide therapeutic services.

Moreover, the report holds that the Standards should be amended to emphasize that those with mental illness should not be held in segregation.  As the report states, “The goal of mental health treatment (and also of correctional practice) should be to do everything possible to foster, enhance and encourage the inmates’ ability to…behave in constructive and non-violent ways after they have returned to the community from jail.”

The city responded to the report with a point-by-point rejection of its findings, claiming that the principal conclusions drawn by Drs. Gilligan and Lee were based on an erroneous legal interpretation of the Mental Health Minimum Standards and that the report’s conclusions and further recommendations were unsupported by sufficient evidence. This response was put forth by a multiple agencies, including the Office of the Mayor, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Drs. Gilligan and Lee responded in turn, claiming that a strictly legal interpretation ignored the changing conditions of the current prison system as well as a misunderstanding of human psychology and behavior.  In order to reach a true understanding of the harm caused by punitive segregation, the authors say, we need to take into account the psychological effects of isolation, as well as the recent influx of people with mental illness into our prisons and jails.

One week after Drs. Gilligan and Lee published their report, the BOC voted unanimously to begin rulemaking to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York City.

These events follow a meeting held in June, in which the Board of Correction voted against limiting solitary confinement in the city’s jails, rejecting a petition put forth by the grassroots group known as the Jails Action Committee (JAC). The petition, if it had been accepted, would have limited solitary confinement as a last resort punishment for violent behavior only, and banned it entirely for children, young adults, and those with mental and physical disabilities.

BOC member Dr. Robert Cohen, a Manhattan physician and expert on prison health and mental health care, vocally supported JAC’s petition. At this June meeting, he called the use of solitary “dangerous,” especially for people with mental illness and adolescents, who are confined in punitive segregation at particularly high rates.  “During the past three years,” he pointed out, ”the percentage of prisoners languishing in solitary confinement has increased dramatically, without benefit in terms of decreased violence or increased safety on Rikers Island,” either for corrections officers or the prisoners themselves.

Dr. Cohen’s statement rings especially true after the release of the most recent BOC report in October, one month after the first report was published. Providing new information about the suffering of mentally ill youth placed in solitary confinement, the report describes the experiences of three adolescent boys at Rikers Island, each held in punitive segregation for more than 200 days, each suffering from mental illness. Youth and adolescents are among the most vulnerable populations in New York’s jail system; the report makes clear, however, that segregating mentally ill youth as a form of punishment is both negligent and dangerous.  The city has yet to respond to this latest criticism of solitary confinement.

The consequences of time spent in solitary confinement are lengthy and harmful, Cohen and other experts say; they include negative effects on mental health, including severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and panic attacks. Furthermore, studies have shown that common patterns of depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts often leave individuals more prone to unstable and violent behavior, which can in turn lead to higher rates of recidivism.

NEWS: New York Promised Help for Mentally Ill in Prison – But Still Sticks Many in Solitary

By Christie Thompson. Excerpted from Pro Publica.

ht_amir_hall_390x260When Amir Hall entered New York state prison for a parole violation in November 2009, he came with a long list of psychological problems. Hall arrived at the prison from a state psychiatric hospital, after he had tried to suffocate himself. Hospital staff diagnosed Hall with serious depression.  

In Mid-State prison, Hall was in and out of solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates and other rule violations. After throwing Kool-Aid at an officer, he was sentenced to seven months in solitary at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.

Hall did not want to be moved. When his mother and grandmother visited him that spring, Hall warned them: If he didn’t get out of prison soon, he would not be coming home.

A grainy tape of Hall’s transfer on June 18, 2010, shows prison guards spraying chemicals into his cell, forcing him to come out. He barely says a word as he is made to strip, shower, bend over and cough. His head drops, his shoulders slump. His face is blank and expressionless. He stares at his hands, except for a few furtive glances at the silent guards wearing gas masks and riot gear.

“There was somebody who looked defeated, like the life was beat out of him,” said his sister Shaleah Hall. “I don’t know who that person was. The person in that video was not my brother.”

Multiple studies have shown that isolation can damage inmates’ minds, particularly those already struggling with mental illness. In recent years, New York state has led the way in implementing policies to protect troubled inmates from the trauma of solitary confinement.

A 2007 federal court order required New York to provide inmates with “serious” mental illness more treatment while in solitary. And a follow-up law enacted in 2011 all but bans such inmates from being put there altogether.

But something odd has happened: Since protections were first added, the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness has dropped. The number of inmates diagnosed with “serious” mental illness is down 33 percent since 2007, compared to a 13 percent decrease in the state’s prison population.

A larger portion of inmates flagged for mental issues are now being given more modest diagnoses, such as adjustment disorders or minor mood disorders.

It’s unclear what exactly is driving the drop in “serious” diagnoses. But “whenever you draw a magic line, and somebody gets all these rights above it and none below it,” said Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project for the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York, “you create an incentive to push people below.” The association was one of a coalition of organizations that called for the change in policy.

The New York Office of Mental Health says the decrease reflects improvements to the screening process. Efforts to base diagnoses on firmer evidence “has resulted in somewhat fewer, but better-substantiated diagnoses” of serious mental illness, said a spokesman for the office in an emailed statement.

In Hall’s case, prison mental health staff never labeled his problems as “serious.”

Instead, they repeatedly downgraded his diagnosis. After three months in solitary — during which Hall was put on suicide watch twice — they changed his status to a level for inmates who have experienced “at least six months of psychiatric stability.”

Two weeks after his diagnosis was downgraded, and two days after he was transferred to solitary at Great Meadow, guards found Hall in his cell hanging from a bed sheet…

Read the full article here.

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