The “SHU” Has Finally Dropped

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After years of public reporting and advocacy work on the part of the Correctional Association and other advocates, legislation designed to protect incarcerated people with mental illness was finally signed into law on January 29, 2008.

The Correctional Associatios’s in-depth reporting on the issue, Lockdown New York (2003) and Mental Health in the House of Corrections (2004), drew wide attention from policymakers, media, and the public, especially in exposing the large numbers of incarcerated people with mental illness inhumanely placed in harsh disciplinary confinement cell blocks known as Special Housing Units (SHU).

Working with the Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, a coalition of advocates and family members of incarcerated individuals and key legislative allies, the Correctional Association led a multi-year effort to secure protection and appropriate treatment for incarcerated individuals with mental illness.

The new law includes numerous important advances that will govern how the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and the Office of Mental Health (OMH) treat incarcerated people with serious mental illness who would otherwise face disciplinary confinement.

Among its provisions, the law:

  • diverts most incarcerated people with serious mental illness from SHU;
  • restricts prisons from placing them on restricted diets, and;
  • establishes minimum standards for mental health assessment and treatment.

Our work, however, is far from over.

The Prison Visiting Project has launched a monitoring initiative to make certain that DOCS and OMH implement new policies with all due expediency, that guidelines preserve the therapeutic nature of new mental health services, and that both agencies limit any and all exceptions to new requirements. We are also working closely with the New York State Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, which under the new law will assume a critical quality assurance role.

As the only organization with unrestricted access to New York’s prisons, the Correctional Association will play a crucial role in ensuring that these new policies fulfill their potential to have a positive, far-reaching impact for people behind bars.

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