Mental Health Advocacy

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In 2004, the Prison Visiting Project (PVP) published Mental Health in the House of Corrections, which examined the programs and services–or lack thereof–for mentally ill individuals incarcerated in New York State prisons. Today, PVP continues its advocacy on behalf of incarcerated individuals with mental illness by promoting policies that will create safer, more humane facilities for both incarcerated individuals and staff. In ongoing prison visits, PVP closely monitors the conditions of confinement for this often-victimized population.

The 2004-05 New York State budget allocates $13 million for mental health services, including services for people confined in Special Housing Units (SHUs), where they are locked in small cells for 23 hours each day. The oppressive conditions of the SHUs exacerbate mental illness and foster self-destructive and aggressive behavior. PVP has long called for removing patients with mental illness from SHUs and placing them in mental health treatment facilities.

Although the new budget initiatives are a welcome step, the approximately 300 beds they will create are insufficient to meet the needs of over 800 incarcerated individuals on the Office of Mental Health caseload who are currently confined in SHUs. Moreover, it is not clear that all the beds planned will be appropriate: some beds are in units that are not typically available to incarcerated individuals who are prone to aggression and disruption, while others offer limited mental health treatment, but continue to house individuals in SHU cells, which aggravate the incarcerated individuals’ mental conditions.

As a member of the Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Coalition, PVP is calling for the passage of legislation that will improve mental health care, especially for incarcerated individuals confined to SHUs. This legislation is supported by NYSCOBA, the correction officers’ union, and would represent a significant advance in the effort to provide humane and effective treatment to a highly vulnerable group of incarcerated people.