Thursday, April 19, 2007

Legal win for mentally ill inmates

State agencies agree to provide more treatment, reduce time in solitary

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, April 18, 2007

ALBANY -- Thousands of severely mentally ill inmates in New York's prisons will receive more treatment as part of a landmark settlement in a federal lawsuit brought by prisoner advocates.

The agreement is expected to be signed April 27 by a federal judge and the parties involved.

It was negotiated after five years of litigation and two weeks of a nonjury trial before U.S. District Judge Gerard E. Lynch in New York City.

"This greatly expands the mental health services available within the prison system," said Cliff Zucker, executive director of Disability Advocates, a not-for-profit group in Albany that was the plaintiff.

About 8,000 of the state's 63,000 inmates have been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Hundreds are kept in solitary confinement and studies have shown they are far more likely to commit suicide or injure themselves.

Along with adding staff, resources and new beds for mentally ill inmates, the settlement bans some seemingly barbaric prison practices, such as:

Stripping naked mentally inmates suffering an acute psychotic episode, segregating them in a Plexiglas-walled cubicle and leaving them with nothing but a thin pad on a cement floor.

The use of punitive "restricted diets," a loaf made from bread and cabbage, for punishment.

It also adds two to four hours of therapy outside the cell for mentally ill prisoners currently locked down in 23-hour solitary confinement.

Dan Odell, a spokesman for the state Office of Mental Health, which was a defendant in the lawsuit along with the state Department of Correctional Services, expressed satisfaction at the resolution of the case. He said details have not yet been worked out, but the settlement will require more mental health professionals and other resources to the prison system.

In the recently adopted state budget, Gov. Eliot Spitzer called for an additional $60 million over three years for services for mentally ill inmates. That includes $50 million in capital construction costs, $2 million for Office of Mental Health staffing and $2 million for Correctional Services staffing this year, growing to $9 million a year in 2009.

Construction money will be used to build facilities for 405 mentally ill prisoners, with 305 transitional intermediate care program beds for those with mental illnesses and a 100-bed residential mental health unit for severely mentally ill inmates who otherwise would be placed in solitary confinement. Also, all new inmates will be carefully screened by professionals for mental illness for the first time.

Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Pritchard said: "Through a considerable investment in state resources in the budget this year, the Spitzer administration has committed to providing significant improvements to the services and housing available for mentally ill inmates."

Sarah Kerr, staff attorney for Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, said: "We believe there's real commitment now in the leadership of the state agencies that will result in true reform for mentally ill prisoners."

Kerr, who spent five years working on the lawsuit, and attorneys with Disability Advocates were joined by attorneys with Prisoners' Legal Services of New York and pro bono lawyers with Davis Polk & Wardwell, a New York City law firm.

Also Tuesday, advocates lobbied at the Capitol for passage of a law to end all solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates.

"We're moving full-speed ahead," said Harvey Rosenthal, an organizer of the event and head of the New York Association for Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at

By themselves
In 2002, the Times Union published "The New Asylums," a special report by Paul Grondahl that looked at New York state's use of 23-hour solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for inmates. Read the archived series at

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