Treatment not Jails Diversion Program is Essential!
September 30, 2022 (Reposted from NYAPRS ENews)
NYAPRS Note: The following underscores how critical jail diversion is for people with mental health challenges. NYAPRS is as strong supporter of ‘Treatment Not Jails’, a bill sponsored in the NYS Legislature by State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest would expand eligibility for mental health diversion programs in the justice system.
Mental Health Care On Rikers: New York’s Largest Psychiatric Provider
On an average day, almost 3,000 people with mental illnesses are detained there – and they need better care.
By Annie McDonough City&State September 30, 2022
Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide, which some people may find disturbing. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255. Those in New York City with mental health struggles can contact NYC Well at 1-888-NYC-WELL.
Around this time last fall, a delegation of state and local lawmakers visited Rikers Island, New York City’s 400-acre jails complex in the East River. More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, amid a spike in violent incidents and chronic absenteeism among staff, elected officials had come to see for themselves what had been described as an unrelenting crisis.
Some of them ended up seeing something unimaginable: an attempted suicide. “I had never witnessed something like that before,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos told City & State recently. “It was truly disheartening to see someone feel so hopeless that they really only saw that as their way out.”
Just over a year later, with a new mayor and a new commissioner leading the Department of Correction, New York City is still dealing with this crisis. Sixteen people have died after being held in custody so far this year, and five of those deaths were suicides or suspected suicides. New York City isn’t alone here. Between 2000 and 2019, suicides were the leading cause of deaths in jails – facilities that hold individuals still awaiting their day in court, or some people serving short sentences.
But New York faces the challenge of stemming this crisis at a massive scale. Rikers Island is one of the largest psychiatric care providers in the country, and it is the largest psychiatric provider in New York City. Half of Rikers’ population in the previous fiscal year had a mental health diagnosis – about 2,780 people – and 16% had a serious mental health diagnosis. In the face of the immense responsibility of caring for those people in custody, some lawmakers and criminal justice advocates said the city was flat out failing. “New York City jails often lack adequate mental health services, which has contributed to unsafe conditions for detainees and staff working within the jail complex,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in an April letter to Mayor Eric Adams.
The New York City Board of Correction has recommended policy and management changes to improve access to mental health care on Rikers, including having medical staff conducting more regular rounds of the intake areas and improving mental health treatment training for correction officers, while others have called for expanding the number of dedicated psychiatric units in the jails system.
But some advocates and progressive lawmakers argued that the best solution to these problems was a much bigger undertaking: diverting many more mentally ill people involved in the criminal justice system to treatment programs, rather than jailing them. “It’s important to recognize that lots of these folks shouldn’t be in jail,” New York City Council Member Tiffany Cabán said. “They should be in their communities receiving the kind of mental health care that they need and deserve.”