Legal Aid Praises December 31 Bloomberg Decision To Stop Solitary Confinement For Inmates With Mental Illness, But Raises Concerns About New Alternative Program
TUESDAY, JANUARY 07, 2014

In a Wall Street Journal article, Sarah Kerr, a Staff Attorney in The Legal Aid Society's Civil Practice Prisoners' Rights Project, praised the announcement by the New York City Department of Corrections to end the practice of solitary confinement for inmates with mentally illness who are charged with breaking rules.  However, she raised concerns about the new alternative program known as Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS). The Department of Corrections announced the policy change on the last day of the Bloomberg Administration on December 31, 2013.

She told the Wall Street Journal that "It is not clear that individuals with serious mental illness who have not violated jail rules will not also be housed in CAPS." The Restrictive Housing Unit model "is far too punitive," she said, with inmates continuing to remain in their cells for long periods. She said the new program "continues to resemble punitive segregation in all but its name."




The Wall Street Journal
Solitary Jailing Curbed New York City Department of Correction Stops Solitary Confinement for Mentally Ill Inmates Who Break Rules
By Sean Gardiner
Jan. 5, 2014

The New York City Department of Correction has stopped its controversial use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates who break the rules, a shift that jail officials are hailing as groundbreaking.

The last of the prisoners being held in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates at Rikers Island jail were reassigned Dec. 31, and what is known as the punitive segregation program has been permanently closed, said Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro, an appointee of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The segregation program, started in 1998, has been criticized by advocates for the mentally ill. Before the changes, city jail populations on a given day included about 400 mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, out of a total population that fluctuates between 12,000 and 13,000.

In solitary confinement, prisoners could be alone in their cells for as many as 23 hours a day. For the first six months of 2013, the average punishment for a mentally ill inmate sent to punitive segregation was 53½ days, according to correction officials.

Inmates who aren't mentally ill and break jail rules can still be put in solitary confinement.

The department decided to close the punitive segregation unit for the mentally ill by the end of 2013, "and we are proud to have met this significant milestone," Ms. Schriro said. Instead of sending mentally ill inmates who break the rules to the segregation unit, referred to by correction officers and inmates as "the bing," those inmates are now assigned to one of two units, Ms Schriro said.

Inmates diagnosed as "seriously mentally ill," such as those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, will be sent to the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation, which officials say is modeled after an inpatient hospital psychiatric ward.

There, inmates will receive group and individual therapy in a "secure therapeutic setting" until a treatment team determines they are prepared to rejoin the jail's general population, Ms. Schriro said. The program has been used on a limited basis since August.

The program has the potential to be a model for correctional facilities across the country, she said.

Inmates diagnosed with less serious mental illnesses who violate jail rules will be assigned to the Restrictive Housing Unit, which was introduced as a pilot program in 2012. and implemented fully this fall at Rikers Island jail, where most city inmates with mental illness diagnoses are housed.

Restrictive housing also involves solitary confinement, but Ms. Schriro said the program, operated with the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is an incentive-based behavioral program in which inmates, through good behavior and participation in clinical treatment programs, can reduce their punishment housing by as much as 50%.

The changes follow a September report commissioned by the City of New York Board of Correction, a watchdog agency with powers to order changes in the city's jail system. The report was critical of the practice of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates.

The report found that over the past six years the number of beds designated for punitive segregation in city jail increased by nearly 62% to 998 and that about 41% of those in segregation units were mentally ill. With the policy changes that number has dropped to 782 beds, and it is expected to decrease to about 650 by the end of June, said Ms. Schriro.

Punitive segregation is still used for prisoners other than those with mental illness diagnoses, though Ms. Schriro said other recent changes have dropped the average confinement there by more than a third.

The report also said the use of prolonged punitive segregation for the mentally ill violated "mental health minimum standards" that the Board of Correction instituted in 1984. Among other measures, the board's standards called for a prisoner to be transferred to a hospital prison ward if he or she was still showing signs of being dangerous to himself or others after four hours in seclusion.

Board Chairman Gordon Campbell issued a statement through the Department of Correction: "The NYC Board of Correction applauds this important step in reducing the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness."

Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project, praised the move away from solitary confinement but said the alternative programs nevertheless raise "many concerns."

"It is not clear that individuals with serious mental illness who have not violated jail rules will not also be housed in CAPS," she said referring to the program by its acronym.

The Restrictive Housing Unit model "is far too punitive," she said, with inmates continuing to remain in their cells for long periods. She said the new program "continues to resemble punitive segregation in all but its name."

Ms. Schriro said that despite their mental-illness diagnoses, the inmates sent to the restrictive housing unit understood what they were doing when they violated jail rules. She said they are given the chance within a few days of being placed in the unit to earn time out of their cells and eventually could have their punishment halved.