In 2010 the New York state legislature passed a law that offers treatment to prisoners diagnosed with mental illnesses instead of being placed in solitary confinement. That law limited the treatment option only for people diagnosed with some, not all, mental illnesses and PTSD was not included in the list. The law also permitted prison officials to keep prisoners in solitary confinement, indefinitely. Now some legislators in New York want to pass HALT, a law that would make it possible for more prisoners to qualify for treatment over solitary confinement and they want to limit the amount of time anyone can be held in solitary in NY state prisons.
Life of the Law’s Executive Producer, Nancy Mullane spoke with Jack Beck, an attorney with the Correctional Association of New York. He monitors conditions in New York prisons and reports to the state legislature.
Nancy Mullane – Jack Beck, thanks for joining Life of the Law.
Jack Beck – Thank you.
NM – Ok Mr. Beck, in 2010 the New York state legislature passed a law that asked prison officials to give people tests to find out whether they had mental illness before they put them in solitary confinement and now there’s a new bill pending. Can you tell me what’s happened in the interim? What’s going on?
JB – Well the previous law was called the SHU exclusion law. SHU actually is the term that we use for solitary confinement. What it said is that if someone was going to spend 30 days in solitary confinement and they had serious mental illness, they had to be diverted to a residential mental health treatment unit in the prison where they would receive mental health services. But the story is not so simple and not so good. What we found is the law has a line of what is serious mental illness. What we’ve seen in the past was there were a certain number of people who would reach that line and now all of the sudden those numbers have been reduced substantially. Since the law was passed, people who that were diagnosed with schizophrenia or a psychosis — their numbers have dropped by 35%. While those that are diagnosed with adjustment anxiety or personality disorders have risen by 72%.
NM – And those aren’t covered under this law. So if they’re diagnosed with these secondary or other mental illnesses, they don’t receive treatment?
JB – They possibly will not. Most people with those diagnoses don’t qualify.
NM – So what we’re seeing is that people with mental illnesses are still being put in solitary confinement in New York state prisons.
JB – Yes. There are still more than 700 people who are receiving mental health services and still put in solitary confinement. It is very common that these people will actually deteriorate and will have to be sent to a mental health crisis unit inside the prison.
NM – What’s the purpose of putting someone with a mental illness in solitary confinement? I mean it would be obvious, it would seem, if you saw someone deteriorating. What’s the purpose of keeping them there?
JB – I would describe it this way: the correctional system really has only one tool that they use to try and control the population and that is isolation.
NM – You mean the only tool to deal with people who are acting out violently?
JB – Well it doesn’t even have to be violent. Many people end up in disciplinary confinement for non-violent acts as simple as having too many stamps, nothing to do with violence — you can still be put in isolation.
NM – So you’ve introduced this new bill in New York state and I believe it’s called HALT?
JB – HALT stands for Humane Alternatives to Long-term Isolation. What it would say is that no one, no one should be in isolation for more than 15 days. Beyond 15 days, people can experience permanent harm. And there are certain people who shouldn’t be in there at all and that would include people with mental illness. We don’t say that people who are acting out and have behavioral problems just need to be left alone, but rather they need a more effective intervention. And there are interventions that seem to work.
NM – So what are the chances of this actually getting passed?
JB – Well, we’ve made a lot of progress. I would anticipate this is going to take some years to get this through because it’s a fundamental change. To get away from punishment at all costs, but rather see that intervening effectively with people actually increases the safety for everyone – the incarcerated population, the staff there, and more importantly when these people return to society.
This segment originally appeared in Episode 59: The Trauma Room.