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New York City Unveils Unprecedented Overhaul Of Mental Health Care For Inmates

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

New York City’s growing population of inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems will soon receive public health services along almost every step of the criminal justice process, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this week.

The four-year, $130 million project aims to reduce recidivism among mentally ill inmates by focusing on treatment rather than punishment for minor, quality-of-life offenses. While aggressive policing of those type of crimes will continue, police officers will take offenders to community based drop-off centers where case managers can refer them to community programs.

Other strategies outlined in Mayor de Blasio’s plan include the improvement of mental health screening before arraignment, restarting Medicaid for inmates upon their release, and the expansion of supervised pretrial programs and community services for more than 4,000 prisoners. Officials said the plan represents the most comprehensive overhaul of a municipality’s criminal justice system.

“I think this is what criminal justice looks like in the 21st century,” Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, told the New York Times. “Preventing crime is about more than the police and more than about prosecutors and defense lawyers and courts,” said Glazer, also a co-chairwoman of a task force of city officials and community leaders that released a report.

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New York City’s correctional system counts among the United States’ largest mental health facilities, due in part to the shuttering of community clinics in the 1980s and the subsequent incarceration of the mentally ill who would have otherwise used those services. Even as incarceration rates have fallen in recent years, the mentally ill prisoner population has grown to nearly 40 percent.

This population of mentally ill inmates often count among what a recent report described as “frequent fliers,” or people who come in and out of Rikers Island multiple times. According to the report, many of the more than 400 people who had been jailed repeatedly within the last two years for minor offenses had substance abuse problems and suffered from a host of mental ailments, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, long stays behind bars without any kind of treatment do nothing to improve the condition of the mentally ill, as detailed in a report last year that recounted instances when corrections officers severely beat more than 120 mentally ill inmates. According to that report, five of the reported beatings followed suicide attempts. The report also found that use of solitary confinement to punish inmates with mental health issues — a method that has been found to incite paranoia — has increased.

In April, the State Supreme Court of Manhattan extended court oversight of New York’s correctional system to two more years after finding that the city didn’t met the basic standards of care for mentally ill inmates.

The poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners, however, is not specific to New York City’s correctional system. Today, the mentally ill — many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have substance abuse problems — account for nearly 70 percent of the nation’s prison population. Common mental ailments include major depression, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

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That’s why Glazer touts New York City’s overhaul of mental health services for inmates as a step in the right direction during a time when the national conversation has shifted to law enforcement’s treatment of marginalized populations. More importantly, de Blasio’s plan comes on the heels of reforms in other correctional systems — including that of California, Illinois, and Maricopa County in Arizona — that don’t address the holistic treatment of mentally ill inmates.

“We see these frequent fliers, people who commit relatively small low level offenses, cycling through the system over and over and over again,” Glazer told the New York Times. “And the question is, how do we stop that? Clearly what we’re doing now is not all that effective.”