Suicides in NYS prisons reach highest rate in 28 years

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Contact: Jack Beck
Director, Prison Visiting Project
Correctional Association
212-254-5700, ext. 310

NEW YORK- The Correctional Association of New York (CA) has been invited to present testimony before the Correction and Mental Health Committees of the Assembly about the recent dramatic increase in prisoner suicides inside of Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions (DOCCS) facilities.

Testimony will focus on the CA’s observations, expert analyses and concerns about mental health services for prisoners and on the implementation of the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law

. The hearing is scheduled to take place on December 6, 2011, in Albany, New York, Legislative Office Building, 2nd Floor, Roosevelt Hearing Room C.

According to Jack Beck, Director of the CA’s Prison Visiting Project:

“The CA’s unique power to monitor conditions behind bars provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to observe and document the implementation of actual prison policies. We have found that DOCCS and OMH provision of mental health services has increased, and in many cases, improved over the past decade—in no small part due to intense pressure and scrutiny by the legislature, courts, prison and mental health advocates, and prison mental health patients and their families.”

While state officials, including DOCCS and OMH employees, should be applauded for their efforts, prison mental health care is not uniform across the system.

Although there is a significant population of prisoners with mental health needs in New York’s prisons—a census that had risen throughout the past decade and reached a maximum of 9,067, or 15% of all prisoners, in 2008—the number of prisoners on the OMH caseload has precipitously dropped as of January 1, 2010.

While the overall prison population has dropped significantly between 2008 and 2011, the OMH caseload has decreased at a rate almost double the population decline.

Additionally, admissions of DOCCS patients to the forensic psychiatric hospital—a figure that had a stable census for at least the previous four years—have decreased by 20% during the past two years. To date, the CA has not received an adequate explanation for the decline in patients on the OMH caseload or in psychiatric hospital admissions.

According to Mr. Beck, who will be providing testimony at the hearing on behalf of the CA: “Progress has been made, but we have not yet reached a standard of care that guarantees that each patient is getting effective treatment. At some facilities, patients with serious mental illness are still being sent to languish in disciplinary solitary confinement. And even when patients with serious mental illness are correctly sent to a residential mental health or behavioral health unit, we have found that the relationship between patients and security staff is problematic and greatly undermines the therapeutic environment.”

Analysis by the CA has also revealed a disturbing trend of increasing suicides in the system, at a time when mental health services for prisoners have also been increasing.

New York State prisons have shown a dramatic trend in increasing prisoner suicides over the past 10 years, rising from seven suicides per year in 2001 to 20 suicides per year in 2010.

The CA’s analysis has revealed that the 2010 suicide rate for New York prisons was not only the highest in the past decade, but also for the past 28 years. At its highest point last year, the rate of suicides in DOCCS facilities was more than double that of the national rate, as reported in 2007 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The CA’s research reveals that recent suicide rates for a small concentration of prisons in the system far exceed department-wide figures, ranging from three to seven times higher than the system-wide average. Additionally, New York prisons have experienced disproportionate numbers of suicides occurring among prisoners housed in, or recently released from, disciplinary confinement.

The CA has found that the most problematic prisons for suicides are Elmira, Downstate, Great Meadow, Wende, Bedford Hills, Southport, Clinton and Attica. All eight of these facilities are maximum security prisons, with significant populations of prisoners with mental illness and larger populations of prisoners being housed in disciplinary confinement.

At Great Meadow, where four suicides occurred within a six-week period in 2010, the CA received multiple reports of assaults by staff when a prisoner requested crisis intervention and of staff harshly treating prisoners when they are housed in Residential Crisis Treatment Program cells.

The CA visited Great Meadow in July 2009 and again in November 2010 a few months after the last suicide took place. Preliminary observations by the CA’s visiting team suggest that the required and appropriate communication and interventions outlined by national suicide prevention standards did not occur at Great Meadow, not even after four suicides took place in such a short time.

OMH and DOCCS policies on suicide prevention seem to be consistent with nationally recognized standards. However, greater transparency is needed to effectively determine to what extent correctional administrators and security staff are being adequately trained on these policies, and, more importantly, whether or not they are followed and an adequate system exists to measure policy compliance.

In order to maintain the progress agencies have made in some areas and initiate improvements on units and programs that are not adequately meeting patients’ needs—both for suicide prevention and general mental health care—independent oversight of policy implementation is critical.