Mental Illness Meets Violence in New York Jail

07/14/2014

The New York Times reports that brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates are common occurrences at the Rikers Island Correction Facility. An internal study completed by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, found that 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” from altercations with correction department staff members between January 1st, 2013 and November 30th, 2013. Of the inmates serious injured, 77 percent had received a mental illness diagnoses. In 5 of the 129 cases, the beatings followed a suicide attempt. 

Rikers Island is the second-largest jail in the United States and about 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates have mental illnesses. This means that Rikers now has approximately as many people with mental illnesses as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. Inmates with mental illnesses make up about 36 percent of the jail population, up from 20 percent eight years ago.

The correction officers on Rikers Island lack an understanding of mental illness and repeatedly respond with excessive force to provocations from inmates. In 80 percent of the cases reported in the health department’s study, inmates were beaten after they were restrained. Inmates suffered face or head injuries in 73 percent of the incidents, more than a third of the assaults resulted in broken bones and more than 40 percent led to wounds that required stitches.

The conditions inside Rikers have come into question recently after several inmates with mental illnesses died in their cells. In February, a homeless veteran with a mental illness died when the temperature in his cell rose past 100 degrees and in March, an inmate with schizophrenia swallowed toxic detergent and died after begging for medical attention for hours. The periods of prolonged isolation, extreme temperatures, and bursts of violence cause some inmates with mental illnesses to withdraw and others to lash out. According to the New York Times, inmates with mental illnesses commit two-third of the infractions in the jail and the correction officers are not properly trained to deal with them, so they resort to violence to subdue them.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Joseph Ponte, the new correction commissioner, have committed themselves to bringing Rikers under control. Ponte came to New York in April from Maine, where he reduced the use of solitary confinement and overhauled the mental health care in state prisons. He plans to hire 12 new training captains to mentor rookie officers, increase the number of security cameras, and staff 370 new units for the most violent inmates, including 120 for inmates with mental illnesses. He has added an additional eight hours of mental health training to the 38.5 hours of training officers receive at the Correction Academy and plans to have the policies allowing correction officers to use excessive force rewritten by the fall. Mayor de Blasio appropriated $32 million in the new budget for mental health programs and more correction officers. He also created a task force to study ways to improve care for people with mental illnesses who come in and out of the criminal justice system.

Despite new leadership, there is still skepticism within Rikers for the mental health conditions of inmates – many guards believe that the inmates are faking their illnesses. Additionally, Norman Seabrook, the president of the correction officers’ union is not supportive of the health department’s efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement and increase the use of the therapy, and has accused the department of undermining jail security.

To read the New York Times article, click here.