Two Steps Back: Budget Fix Targets Incarcerated People with Mental Illness

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On December 4, the New York State Commission on Quality of Care (CQC) came to the Correctional Association as part of its role in monitoring the implementation of a new law that protects incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness. The law–dubbed the “SHU Bill”–prohibits prisons from confining incarcerated people with mental illness in disciplinary cellblocks known as Special Housing Units and requires that they be diverted to prison residential treatment programs.

The Commission came in part to hear from family members of incarcerated individuals who have suffered under these conditions. One family member told of how her son was ridiculed by a correction officer, stopped taking his medications, and was placed in isolation for fifteen days. Another told of her brother, diagnosed with schizophrenia, who was denied treatment in spite of his physical and mental deterioration in the SHU. The family members who testified were members of Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement–an advocacy group that worked closely with the CA in pressing for passage of the law. Their messages emphasized how very important the law is to ensuring appropriate treatment for incarcerated individuals with mental illness.

Given our ongoing work on this issue, we were alarmed to learn that, in searching for ways to close New York’s budget gap, Governor Paterson proposed an amendment to the SHU Bill that would seriously weaken several important provisions. As of this writing, the governor’s proposal would delay the law’s implementation deadline from 2011 to 2014, reduce training requirements for prison staff, and exempt certain prisons–representing about 50% of the SHU beds system-wide–from the law’s requirements.

Governor Paterson has made some wise decisions in planning criminal justice savings. He has proposed closing underutilized prisons and supports reforming New York’s harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws. However, undermining the effectiveness of the SHU Bill is a notable lapse in this good judgment–one that we and our allies will aggressively oppose. State officials must indeed identify and implement prison savings–and we are ready to aid in that task–but we will not stand by passively as they roll back the recent progress made in providing humane treatment to the highly vulnerable population of incarcerated individuals with mental illness.