Read the article on Fusion.
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Read the article on Fusion.
Watch the video here:
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.
For more on the hearing, see the following news accounts:
By Michael Virtanen. Reprinted from the Associated Press.
The 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.
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.”
By Annie Wu. Excerpted from The Epoch Times.
For Johnny Perez, the horrors of being placed in solitary confinement still remain fresh in his memory. More than 15 years ago, when Perez was a young teen, he was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island.
“It’s second by second, the attack on your soul,” Perez said, who now works as an advocate for the mentally ill at the Urban Justice Center.
Perez recalls having suicidal thoughts and crying so much that “you cry even when you run out of tears.” In addition, corrections officers often turned a blind eye to the violence that occurred among inmates.
“The abuses came out of pure neglect,” Perez said.
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…
By Jake Pearson, Associated Press. Reprinted from ABC News.
New York City lawmakers peppered correction and health officials with questions about how to reduce violence and better care for a growing mentally ill inmate population in the nation’s second-largest jail system during a specially called oversight hearing Thursday.
In three hours of testimony, the commissioners for the departments of correction and health and mental hygiene detailed both the bureaucratic inner-workings of how their two agencies, tasked respectively with both the custody and health care of roughly 11,000 daily inmates, interact now — and what they can do better to reform a jail system advocates, lawmakers and even the department of correction commissioner himself have called troubled.
“These long-term trends, years in the making, are clearly unacceptable, and reversing them is my top priority,” Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who started running the $1 billion agency in April, said of the violence. “But as a correction professional with 40 years’ experience, I must assure you that the process will not be quick. And it will not be easy.”
Their testimony comes following reports by The Associated Press detailing two grisly deaths of inmates with psychological problems on Rikers Island.
DOC statistics show that between 2010 and 2013, use-of-force incidents have increased by 59 percent, from 1,871 to 2,977; slashing and stabbing incidents doubled, from 34 to 58; and assaults on staff jumped by 30 percent, from 500 to 646.
At the same time, the number of inmates with a mental health diagnoses has soared as the jail population has declined, accounting for about 24 percent of the nearly 14,000 inmates in 2007 to about 40 percent of mentally ill inmates today, according to the statistics. Officials estimate that about a third of those inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week appointed a task force charged with rethinking how the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill.
Lawmakers argued Thursday the challenges facing reform at Rikers are vast, and include not just safety and mental health measures, but also new facilities, more security staff and bail reform.
Mary Bassett, the department of health and mental hygiene’s commissioner, told lawmakers that mental health and violence in the jails are intertwined. She said correction officers and mental health workers have already begun to discuss certain inmates’ behavior at the end of every tour, being mindful of medical privacy laws, so as to better recognize potential problems before it’s too late.
Officials have started to reform 19 so-called mental observation units, where the recent deaths of two inmates with psychological problems occurred, she said.
Those deaths, reported by The Associated Press, called for top-down change, said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.
The AP was first to report on suspicions of a mentally ill former Marine’s February death inside a 101-degree cell. A city official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the AP then that Jerome Murdough “basically baked to death.” His family, who said the veteran suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit.
Last month, the AP detailed the September 2013 death of 39-year-old inmate Bradley Ballard, whose family said was diagnosed with schizophrenia who died after sexually mutilating himself while locked up alone for seven days. His death was recently ruled a homicide.
Prosecutors are investigating both deaths.
New York University psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan, who authored a report last year that was critical of the department’s then approach to using solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates, said Thursday the hearing was an encouraging sign that the city was taking the issue seriously.
“I think this is a move toward greater transparency in what’s going on at Rikers Island both with the problems and with the reforms,” he said.
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.
By Keri Blakinger. Reprinted from examiner.com.
On Monday, hundreds of activists gathered outside the Capitol in Albany to lobby in favor of a bill that would make major changes to the way that solitary confinement is used in New York’s prisons and jails.
The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act seeks to address the underlying behavioral problems that lead inmates to be placed in solitary confinement by offering increased treatment options. For inmates sentenced to more than 15 days in solitary, HALT would ensure that they receive six hours of out-of-cell programming and treatment per day in new units called residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs. Certain vulnerable populations — such as pregnant women, inmates under 21, elderly inmates, mentally or physically handicapped inmates, and LGBTQI inmates — would be excluded from being in solitary confinement for even one day. Instead, such populations would be referred directly to RRUs.
As Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement reports, there are approximately 4,000 men, women, and children in solitary confinement in New York’s state prisons and many more in its city and county jails. Currently, Solitary Watch reports that 5 out of 6 people in solitary confinement in New York are there for non-violent rules violations, including such minor offenses as having too many stamps or talking back to an officer. Solitary confinement entails spending 22 to 24 hours per day locked in a cell approximately the size of an elevator.
Solitary confinement survivor Five Mualimm-ak told a local news channel about the torturous conditions, saying, “We’re talking about human isolation. We’re talking about sensory deprivation. We’re talking about our God-given rights.”
One of the speakers at the rally was renowned academic and activist Cornel West. He spoke passionately about issues of race in regards to mass incarceration, saying, “Everybody knows 12 percent of those on the chocolate side, 12 percent of those on the vanilla side of flying high in the friendly skies every week taking drugs, but 65 percent of the convicteds [on drug offenses] are chocolate. That just lets us know that the legacy of white supremacy is still operating in America.”
Press Release from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Albany, May 5, 2014 — At a mid-morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building in Albany, leading legislators joined advocates, people who had experienced solitary confinement, and family members of those currently in solitary to promote the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A08588A / S06466A).
At the same time, more than 120 individuals from across the state, many of them directly affected by the widespread use of solitary confinement in New York, gathered for an inaugural lobby day at the State Capitol, meeting with more than 50 legislators.
After years of activism by human rights and civil liberties groups, faith communities, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and other concerned citizens, solitary confinement is currently exploding as an issue, both in the media and on public policy agendas.
Supporters are hailing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act as the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. As written, it would virtually eliminate a practice that has been increasingly denounced as both dangerous and torturous, while protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals and corrections officers.
According to Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, “New York State was a leader for the country in passing the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which keeps people with the most severe mental health needs out of solitary confinement. Now we must show the way forward again, ensuring that we provide safe, humane and effective alternatives to solitary for all people.”
“Solitary confinement makes people suffer without making our prisons safer. It is counter-productive as well as cruel,” said Senator Bill Perkins, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Solitary harms not only those who endure it, but families, communities, and corrections staff as well.”
Additional sponsors of the bill include Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Brad Hoylman, Velmanette Montgomery, N. Nick Perry, and John L. Sampson.
On any given day, about 3,800 people are in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with many more in other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s State prisons. They are held for 23 to 24 hours in cells smaller than the average parking space, alone or with one other person. More than 800 are in solitary confinement in New York City jails, along with hundreds more in local jails across the state.
New York isolates imprisoned people at levels well above the national average, and uses solitary to punish minor disciplinary violations. Five out of six sentences that result in placement in New York State’s SHUs are for non-violent conduct. Individuals are sent to the SHU on the word of prison staff, and may remain there for months, years, or even decades.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act bans extreme isolation beyond 15 days–the limit advocated by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, among others. Méndez, who is the United Nations’ main torture investigator, has found that solitary confinement as it is practiced in New York violates the U.S.’s international obligations with regard to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.
The Special Rapporteur contributed a statement which was read aloud at the press conference, concluding, “The HALT Solitary Confinement Act reflects both safe and effective prison policy and respect for human rights. It should become law in New York State and a model for change across the United States.”
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act goes well beyond the agreement that was recently reached between the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York Civil Liberties Union to limit the use of isolation on youth, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. HALT completely bars these and other vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary at all.
For those who present a serious threat to prison safety and need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of time, the legislation creates new Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs)–separate, secure units with substantial out-of-cell time, and programs and treatment aimed at addressing the underlying causes of behavioral problems.
“Isolation does not promote positive change in people; it only damages them,” said Megan Crowe-Rothstein of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “By requiring treatment and programs for people who are separated from the prison population for serious misconduct, the legislation requires Corrections to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and degradation.”
The widespread use of long-term solitary confinement has been under fire in recent years, in the face of increasing evidence that sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological damage. Supporters of the bill also say that isolated confinement fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior, and often exacerbates that behavior as people deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.
Rev. Ron Stief of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture said, “The diverse faith traditions represented by NRCAT hold in common a belief in the dignity of each human person. We share a conviction that the use of isolated confinement in U.S. prisons and jails violates basic religious values of community and restorative justice. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act provides New York with a critical opportunity to lead the way nationally in increasing access to rehabilitation and ending the torture of isolated confinement.”
Solitary confinement has never been shown to reduce prison violence. In fact, several state prisons systems, including Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement, and have seen prison violence decrease as well. In addition, individuals released from solitary confinement have higher recidivism rates. In New York each year, nearly 2,000 people are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets.
“The damage done by solitary confinement is deep and permanent,” said solitary survivor Five Mualimm-ak of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. Mualimm-ak spent five years in isolated confinement despite never having committed a violent act in prison. “Having humane alternatives will spare thousands of people the pain and suffering that extreme isolation causes–and the scars that they carry with them back into our communities.”
Also speaking at the press conference was hip-hop artist Mysonne, who spent time in solitary in New York, and Jessica Casanova, aunt of a young man currently in solitary.
Many of those represented at the press conference are members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which was instrumental in drafting the bill. CAIC unites advocates, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State with formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently incarcerated people.
On May 5, CAIC members from all corners of New York State were gathering at the State Capitol to lobby legislators to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.
“CAIC recognizes that we need a fundamental transformation of how our public institutions address people’s needs and behaviors, both in our prisons and in our communities,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York. “Rather than inhumane and ineffective punishment, deprivation, and isolation, the HALT Act would provide people with greater support, programs, and treatment to help them thrive, and in turn make our prisons and our communities safer.”
Monday, May 5, 10:00 – 11:00 am
LCA Press Room, Legislative Office Building, First Floor
198 State Street, Albany
Assembly Member Jeffrion L. Aubry (D, 35th District, Queens),
Assembly sponsor Senator Bill Perkins (D, 30th District, Harlem), Senate sponsor
Five Mualimm-ak, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC)
Mysonne, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, hip-hop artist
Jessica Casanova, aunt of individual currently in solitary, CAIC
Scott Paltrowitz, Correctional Association of New York, CAIC
Claire Deroche, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CAIC
All speakers will be available for interview along with additional family members of individuals in solitary confinement, advocates, and members of the clergy, including Rev. Dr. Paul S. Johnson, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock