Prisoner Mental Health

A settlement in Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health and Department of Correctional Services provides for major improvements in psychiatric treatment for New York State prisoners with mental illness. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York City in May, 2002, was resolved in April 2007 after five years of litigation and two weeks of trial. PRP litigated the case in collaboration with Disability Advocates, Inc., Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, and the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

The lawsuit alleged that prisoners throughout the New York State prison system did not get the treatment they needed. As a result, many prisoners in need of treatment were instead punished with lengthy stays in 23 hour per day lockdown (isolated confinement in SHU or keeplock), where they suffered severe psychiatric deterioration, including acts of self-mutilation and even suicide. The settlement requires that prisoners with serious mental illness confined in Special Housing Units ("SHU") will now receive a minimum of 2 hours per day of out of cell treatment and that prisoners in the newly created Residential Mental Health Unit (“RMHU”) receive as many as 4 hours, in addition to an hour of recreation.

The settlement also provides:

  • Multiple reviews of disciplinary sentences for prisoners with mental illness for the purpose of removing prisoners with serious mental illness from isolated confinement.
  • Residential programs for 405 prisoners with serious mental illness.
  • 215 Transitional Intermediate Care Program beds for prisoners with mental illness in general population.
  • 90 additional Intermediate Care Program beds for prisoners with mental illness who cannot tolerate the prison general population.
  • A 100 bed Residential Mental Health Unit ("RMHU") which will provide 4 hours per day of out-of-cell programming for prisoners with serious mental illness who would otherwise be in SHU. This unit was opened in December 2009.
  • The above are in addition to 310 residential mental health programs beds which the state instituted during the litigation.
  • An additional 20 psychiatric hospital beds for prisoners in need of acute care.
  • Universal and improved mental health screening of all prisoners at admission to prison.
  • Improved suicide prevention assessments, now required upon admission to SHU.
  • Improved treatment and conditions for prisoners in psychiatric crisis in observation cells.
  • Limits on the use of observation cells, where prisoners in psychiatric crisis are deprived of most possessions and clothing.
  • Limits on punishment of prisoners with mental illness who hurt themselves because of their illness.
  • Limits on the use of the punitive 'restricted diet' (a loaf made from bread and cabbage) as a punishment for misconduct by prisoners with serious mental illness.
  • Elimination of isolated confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness in cells that have solid steel doors that severely isolate and restrict communication.

The 2007-08 state budget provided monies to carry out the State's commitments in the settlement agreement. These funds approximate over $50 million in capital construction costs; $2 million for additional OMH staffing for the 2007-2008 year to grow to $9 million when construction is complete; and nearly $2 million for additional DOCS staffing for the 2007-2008 fiscal year. "This settlement is historic in the scope of its comprehensive mental health programs and in the breadth of the relief provided to prisoners with mental illness. Relief for prisoners in isolated confinement is not limited to prisoners housed in one 'supermax' facility, as is true in so many other states. This settlement provides relief to all prisoners with serious mental illness in any form of isolated confinement in any prison and much more," stated Sarah Kerr, who litigated the case for PRP.

This case followed PRP's collaboration with Prisoners' Legal Services of New York in two cases involving prisoners with mental illness in the Special Housing Units (punitive isolation), the Eng case at Attica Correctional Facility and the Anderson case at Auburn and Green Haven Correctional Facilities. While we obtained significant benefits for prisoners in both those cases, they demonstrated that the deficiencies of the prison mental health system were so pervasive that a statewide challenge to the entire system was necessary, leading to the development and filing of DAI v. OMH.

Those earlier cases in the area of state prisoner mental health law reform were:

Other projects in the area of prisoner mental health law reform include: