A new, unjust, and gruesome “mental health institution” has been slowly and quietly growing across the nation: our jails and prisons. Over the past several decades, the number of incarcerated individuals with a diagnosed mental illness has continually risen. In fact, Rikers Island and the Los Angeles County Jail are the two largest providers of mental health services in the nation.
Despite clear advances in recognizing and accepting mental illness in the media (many programs depict the problems associated with it), in health care (where patients are no longer shunned), and in the workplace (where workers with disabilities, including alcoholism, are offered treatment), our criminal justice system continues to oppress those who are most in need. Sick people are punished, not treated, resulting in the further victimization of a highly vulnerable and stigmatized population.
As people with psychiatric disabilities who are or have been imprisoned, members of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD) know firsthand the horrors that exist behind prison walls.
As a child, Miguel* had difficulty in school and was sent to special education class. In junior high, he heard voices in his head, telling him that everyone was laughing at him. He began using drugs to escape the feeling of being different and then selling drugs to support his habit. He was caught, convicted of selling drugs, and sentenced to seven years. In prison, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic with psychotic features, but instead of receiving treatment he was locked in solitary confinement. He spent seven years in and out of solitary with little or no medication. He did two more stints in the New York State correctional system for similar drug charges, spending a total of 19 years behind bars. Miguel now lives in New York City but notes that he has “never been the same.” Nothing can undo the torture he endured in prison. He has a lack of trust in people, even his closest friends and family. Miguel says that had he been offered “proper care in his youth” he “might have avoided the prison system altogether.”
Paul* was diagnosed with bipolar illness in 1991. In 1996, he was arrested for two D crimes (the lowest category of felony) as result of a manic episode. Instead of taking into account Paul’s bipolar diagnosis (often D crimes can been reduced to misdemeanors), the judge sentenced him to 4 ¾ to 20 years, a term usually reserved for someone who has committed a severe offense. He is now serving his 12th year in the New York State correctional system. Although medication and limited therapy are available, prison is the worst place to put a person with a bipolar condition. The correction officers in the New York State prison system, even those assigned to units dealing with people with psychiatric illness, are not trained to deal with the mentally ill or recognize the symptoms of a psychiatric condition, so they inflict harsh punishment either through physical violence or Tier III tickets, which result in long terms of solitary confinement. Paul continues to suffer enormously in prison.
Since its inception in 2003, RIPPD has been involved in many campaigns to end the criminalization of mental illness. RIPPD members were instrumental in convincing the Republican-controlled New York State Senate to pass legislation (S.02207C) banning the use of solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness in New York State prisons. In 2008, Governor David Patterson signed the bill, which will go into effect in 2011.
RIPPD has also been at the forefront of a community effort to stop the building of a jail in the Bronx. RIPPD has been instrumental in getting the Bronx Borough president and the correction commissioner to meet with the community. Until RIPPD brought media attention to the issue, both officials had avoided meeting with the community. The borough president, along with the entire Bronx delegation, which includes City Council members as well as State Assembly members and state senators who represent the Bronx, has since agreed to take a public stance against the building of the jail, and the correction commissioner has held several community meetings to discuss his proposal.
After two years of community organizing around this issue, the Department of Correction decided not to build a jail in Hunts Point. Since then, RIPPD has continued to organize around the issue of jail expansion in New York City and has blocked subsequent plans for jail expansion in the Bronx. With the recent resignation of Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn, the city’s proposal for jail expansion is at a standstill.
In response to recent incidents with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) including the death of Iman Morales, a 35-year-old man with mental illness, as a result of being tasered by police, RIPPD has been organizing to ensure that the NYPD adopts a pre-booking jail diversion model such as Community Intervention Teams, so that people with mental illness receive treatment, not jail time.
To date, RIPPD has met with commanding officers of several precincts in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and, most recently, Manhattan. These meetings have given RIPPD an opportunity to demand change from individual precincts as well as the NYPD as a whole.
RIPPD has discussed in each meeting the details of its Community Intervention Teams. These proposed teams would not only provide expanded mental health training for police officers (i.e., signs and symptoms of mental illness and de-escalation techniques) but, more important, would provide a system of accountability and community involvement so that all parties involved (people with mental illness, the larger NYC community, and the NYPD) are best served.
Recent media coverage exposing conditions in prisons has provided an opportunity for widespread reforms. It is now the responsibility of the public, mental health and criminal justice advocates, and our public policy makers to ensure that necessary reforms are made in order to end the injustice that is occurring in jails and prisons throughout the United States.
*Not their real names