NYAPRS Note: After a long struggle, disability rights lawyers and advocates were able to win both a legal settlement and new legislation (SHU Exclusion Law) in 2008 that required greatly improved treatment of people with mental health conditions within state prisons. NYAPRS members played a major role as part of a larger coalition called ‘Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement.’
Included in the settlement’s and law’s requirements were 40 hours of specialized training for correction officers, a ban on more than 30 days of solitary confinement for people with more serious diagnoses and monitoring by a NYS watchdog agency, most recently the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
Nonetheless, a NYS Assembly Hearing on the state’s prison system last week confirmed what many families and advocates have been claiming that, as Assembly Corrections Committee Chairman Danny O’Donnell told the Daily News: “clearly, the way we deal with the mentally ill in prison is not working.” See excerpts from several family members’ testimony to appreciate how horrific conditions still are for too many.
NYAPRS supported pieces of legislation last year that were put forward by both Assemblyman O’Donnell and MHASC and has been urging the Governor’s office to allow the Justice Center to publicly post findings from their tours of identified state prisons on their website.
These issues will likely be part of a large criminal justice agenda NYAPRS will be carrying once again during the coming legislative session, to include more funding for Crisis Intervention Teams (beyond the $1.5 million we helped secure over the past 2 years), pre-discharge access to Medicaid for those in both state prisons and county jails and Raising the Age of adult level criminal liability from 16 to 18.
Mothers, Experts Plead for Oversight of NY Prison System
By Michael Virtanen Associated Press December 2, 2015
Several corrections experts and mothers of inmates testified Wednesday that New York needs far better oversight of its prison system, citing cases where mentally ill inmates were abused, improperly isolated in solitary confinement and for one, killed by guards.
Appearing before the Assembly Corrections Committee, they called for independent, autonomous oversight from a new agency where families of prisoners can also take their complaints and be heard.
Committee Chairman Daniel O'Donnell said afterward that he'll resume the hearings after state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott issues her report on the June escape of two killers from Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York. If she declines then to testify, he'll subpoena her, he said.
The prison guards' union also declined to testify and launched a media campaign Wednesday accusing O'Donnell of "grandstanding" and "a long history of anti-law enforcement comments."
O'Donnell countered that the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association has remained silent on the prison break and "failed to address the culpability of their own officers."
Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, testified that after the Clinton breakout, her office received letters from many inmates on the same honor block as escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat. The letters said the inmates had been taken by interrogators to isolated rooms without cameras where they were beaten and threatened when they said they didn't know anything. They were sent to other prisons and weeks of solitary confinement without any of the required reports, she said.
She advocated wide use of video and body cameras, an oversight agency with powers to investigate with unfettered access and prosecute, zero tolerance for abuse, streamlined prisoner grievances, a database showing guards' histories of grievances and complaints, and training to de-escalate confrontations with the mentally ill.
Like other witnesses, she said most of the corrections officers are doing their jobs but bad actors need to be weeded out.
Pace Law School professor Michael Mushlin, co-chair of the American Bar Association Subcommittee on Prison Oversight, scored New York's prison oversight at 0.5 on a scale of one to 10. Prisons are the most closed part of society, and without transparency and public accountability, "inevitably horrible things" like rapes, assaults, suicides and killings will happen, he said.
Civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore, who represents Samuel Harrell's family, said the mentally ill 30-year-old was beaten to death by guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility in April. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, and 15 other inmates in affidavits said guards beat him and threw him down the stairs. Harrell was in crisis, mistakenly thought he was going home, and had started packing, he said.
Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady said Wednesday his office and the U.S. attorney have "an active and ongoing joint investigation" into the circumstances of Harrell's death and criminal and constitutional issues. Nobody has been charged yet, he said.
Terri Sartoris and Tama Bell each said their sons were imprisoned with diagnosed severe mental illnesses. Sartoris said her son was beaten and raped by another inmate at Attica prison after he was denied protective custody and burned himself in an effort to get attention.
Bell said her son was beaten by guards at Mid-State Correctional after he refused an order and was penalized with 18 months in solitary confinement for behavior violations, although rules prohibit more than 30-day isolation for the mentally ill.
A state psychiatrist downgraded her son's diagnosis in prison, though a private psychiatrist diagnosed him again with bipolar disorder after his release, and a scan showed two broken bones in his face, she said.