Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy.

Mental Health Care and Incarceration in NYS

“People who suffer from mental illness often need individualized treatment to help them cope. Overwhelmingly, our society has failed to provide such care in the community and instead has criminalized behavioral manifestations of mental illness. Prisons have become the de facto substitute for mental health care, and too often utilize punishment rather than provide the therapeutic treatment people need.

As a result, many incarcerated individuals with mental illness decompensate, end up in long term isolation, and/or commit serious acts of self-harm. In the past three decades the percent of individuals with a mental illness in prisons or jails nationwide has tripled and now three times as many persons who are seriously mentally ill are in correctional facilities as in state mental hospitals.

In New York State, the Office of Mental Health (OMH) has identified 8,000 incarcerated individuals as requiring mental health treatment. During the past ten years, partially due to pressure by the Correctional Association of NY (CA) and other advocacy organizations, OMH has both greatly increased the number of incarcerated individuals receiving treatment and enhanced the treatment services provided; unfortunately, serious problems remain in both access to and quality of mental health care. Moreover, New York State prisons have one of the highest rates of prison suicide in the country, double the national average in 2010.

The CA has long documented the care received and the abuses suffered by those with mental illness inside prisons and advocated for change. Horrified by the tragic consequences of long-term disciplinary confinement, where people with serious mental illness sometimes decompensate to the point of smearing feces on the walls or cutting themselves, the CA has engaged in years of advocacy and coalition work to end disciplinary confinement for the seriously mentally ill.

As a founding member of Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC), the CA and its allies succeeded in 2008 in passing the SHU Exclusion Law, unique legislation that prohibits the placement of people with a serious mental illness in disciplinary confinement for more than 30 days.

The CA continues to report on the experiences of all persons who suffer from mental illness in prison, monitor incidences of, and facility responses to, self-harm, and advocate for improved treatment and care for all people with mental illness.”

(Source: Correctional Association of New York)

About the author