New York Times Report on State Prisons Cites Inmates' Mental Illness October 22, 2003

One of every four New York State prisoners who are kept in punitive segregation - confined to a small cell at least 23 hours a day - are mentally ill, according to a new report by a nonprofit group that has been critical of state prison policies.

One in five of the roughly 5,000 prisoners punished with that isolation have a serious drug problem, the report said. But despite graphic evidence that the most acutely ill prisoners in punitive segregation, or lockdown, often grow only more troubled and violent, the state Department of Correctional Services, which runs the state's 70 prisons, rarely does anything to help them, said the report, released yesterday by the group, the Correctional Association of New York.

To the contrary, when inmates in punitive segregation try to hurt or kill themselves, the department's policy is to punish them with additional lockdown time, according to the report. About half of the 258 inmates interviewed by the report's authors said they had attempted suicide in prison. Many prisoners spend years under lockdown.

The findings of the association, an inmate-advocacy group, are based on state records, the authors' visits to 29 state prison lockdown units and interviews with hundreds of prisoners, correction officers and prison supervisors. The association, established in 1844, is authorized by state law to visit prisons and interview inmates and employees.

The Correctional Services commissioner, Glenn S. Goord, declined to comment yesterday on the report's specific conclusions and recommendations, which include changing prison rules so that emotionally disturbed inmates who misbehave would be treated instead of sent to isolation. Instead, Mr. Goord accused the Correctional Association of proffering "phony issues," and criticized the report's principal author, Jennifer Wynn, as unprofessional.

But in interviews, several prison experts, psychiatrists and state officials who are familiar with the report agreed with its conclusion that the prison system is unprepared to properly treat mentally and physically ill inmates.

Yesterday, an independent report by Human Rights Watch found that as many as 25 percent of prisoners nationwide are mentally ill.

"The 25 percent is very much like it is for other states; there are probably some that are even worse, and it's a scandal," said Michael L. Perlin, a professor at New York Law School who has studied prison mental health issues. "It reflects a mentality that we should have discarded a century ago."

Professor Perlin, who sits on the Correctional Association's advisory board, said Commissioner Goord, who has dismissed criticism of punitive segregation in the past, should heed the association's findings. "There should be a tremendous obligation on the part of New York's authorities to deal with this frontally and forthrightly," he said.

In the association's 51-page report, the authors paint a grim portrait of the lockdown units in some state prisons. They describe observing one inmate alone in his cell, smeared with his own feces; another inmate sprawled on the floor because his wheelchair was confiscated for security reasons; a prisoner with AIDS, dying and barely able to lift his head; and dozens of others with symptoms of acute psychoses or covered in scars from self-inflicted cuts.

"These are serious human-rights abuses," said Robert Gangi, the Correction Association's executive director. "There are people who die needlessly in New York State prisons because they are put in there when they are mentally ill, and they kill themselves."

He added, "The state's political leaders should recognize how important a matter this is."

Using nearly $200 million in federal grants, New York has built 10 prisons with 3,788 beds since 1997, solely for punitive segregation, Mr. Gangi said. Beyond those units, there are more than 20 "segregated housing units" in the state's seven maximum security prisons, as well as lockdown cells in separate blocks within other prisons.

About 7.6 percent of the 65,000 inmates in the state prison system were in lockdown in April, according to the report.

The report said department records indicate that the average prisoner in 23-hour lockdown remains there for five to six months before returning to the general prison population. (One hour a day is allowed for what is called recreation in a small, empty outdoor cage.) But in interviews with inmates, the association reported their average stay to be three years. Most punitive segregation is solitary confinement; some units house two inmates.

In an interview in May 2000 in DOCS Today, a departmental newsletter, Commissioner Goord said segregated housing units "had an immediate and positive effect on the system" by reducing inmate assaults on correction officers.

But Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of isolation on mentally ill inmates, said that when dealing with mentally ill and drug-addled inmates, what is good for the prison system is not good for public safety.

"The paradigm is that if we punish them enough, they will change their behavior," Dr. Grassian, whose research is cited in the report, said yesterday. "There's too great a tendency to label their behavior as willful. You put them in situations that are more and more stressful, their behavior will become worse."

He added, "Most of these people get out at some point, and then they become a danger to all of us."

Despite repeated cases of inmates hanging and starving themselves while in punitive segregation, and despite repeated criticism from the State Commission of Correction, an oversight agency with little authority to force the department to change its rules, New York prisons are not much different from those in many other states.

"This is an issue for every prison system," said Michael P. Jacobson, a former New York City correction commissioner who is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Punitive segregation costs less per prisoner than less restrictive prison blocks because it requires fewer officers and relatively less space for programs and activities. In its report, the Correctional Association accused the department of sending too many inmates into punitive isolation for infractions like smoking cigarettes or "horseplay."

Mr. Jacobson said, "You have to be very selective about who goes in" lockdown cells, "and you have to be very careful about watching them once they're in."

In its report, the Correctional Association recommended creating an oversight body with authority to inspect lockdown units, a body similar, in fact, to the Board of Correction, which sets minimum standards for inmate populations in New York City jails and monitors them.

After receiving an advance copy of the Correctional Association's report, in August, Mr. Goord, the Correctional Services commissioner, accused Ms. Wynn, the report's principal author, of using the Correctional Association's privileged status to communicate with a particular inmate, and he banned her from entering the prisons beyond the visiting area. Since then, he has imposed new limits on how many association employees may visit a prison, prohibited association interviews with prison staff and declared access to all segregated housing units off limits.

Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Democratic state assemblyman from Queens and chairman of the Committee on Corrections, said he plans to introduce a bill in January that would prohibit inmates with serious mental illnesses from being sent to lockdown and require them to receive treatment instead.

"I've been in the S.H.U.'s," he said, recalling how he was temporarily locked in a segregated housing unit during a tour of a state prison. "I'm not surprised they have a negative impact on inmates."