Locking up the mentally ill

There was an article two weeks ago in the New York Times about the rising number of mentally ill inmate attacks on prison staff at Rikers Island. It is not a particularly good article, as it addresses the wrong problem, but you can read it here.

What is particularly interesting is the reactions to the article.

A letter to the editor from the May 30th New York Times:

As a former Rikers Island mental health worker, I found that although your article spotlights the challenges in providing mental health treatment behind bars, the larger question is why the mentally ill — specifically, those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia — are being treated in a jail setting to begin with.

When the big state psychiatric hospitals were shuttered decades ago, it was with the promise that they would be replaced with smaller, community-based supervised housing — something that never materialized.

Most of the psychiatrically impaired have been arrested on minor offenses, like trespassing, as in the case of the homeless vet who recently “baked to death” in his cell.

Making good on the long-awaited promise of outside support and supervision would likely reduce the number of low-level transgressions that lead to arrest, would mean humane care for our most fragile citizens, and would go a long way in reducing jailhouse chaos.

Brooklyn, May 22, 2014

The writer, a psychiatric social worker, was an assistant mental health chief at Rikers in the Giuliani administration.

And these from June 1:

To the Editor:

Re “End Mass Incarceration Now” (editorial, May 25):

For nearly five decades, I have worked with formerly incarcerated men and women. Two things guided me to reach the conclusion that our prison system is an exercise in institutional futility.

First, the system almost never allows the inmate to consider the factors that led him or her to addiction and/or crime. In fact, to survive in that dehumanized subculture, you have to continue the behavior and thinking that lead to imprisonment.

Second, virtually nothing in jail or prison prepares a person for re-entry to society. One man described it best, saying: “I had to put on coats of armor to survive in prison. Someone has to teach me to remove those cloaks of protection so I can function in society.”

The bottom line, reflected in the country’s high recidivist rate, is that the prison system is contributing to antisocial behavior. We have to be more creative in how and why we incarcerate, and whom.

New York, May 25, 2014

The writer is the founder of the Fortune Society.

To the Editor:

One salient fact was not mentioned in your editorial: the percentage of those incarcerated who suffer significant mental illness. This fact was revealed in your coverage of Rikers Island (front page, May 22), which reported that nearly 40 percent of those prisoners were mentally disabled.

Have we emptied our mental health facilities only to have former patients end up in jails and prisons? Is that where they belong?

Is it better to have the mentally ill controlled by prison guards rather than by psychotherapists, and by fire hoses rather than by therapy and drugs?

Is their incarceration not a national disgrace?

Washington, May 25, 2014

The writer, a former reporter for The New York Times, is a trustee of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

To the Editor:

As a professor of criminal justice and a researcher who has spent 40 years examining the long-term effects of mass incarceration on prisoners and society, I believe that the concept of redemption must play a much larger role.

Redemption — the ability finally to forgive — is consistent with a positive notion of the human condition. The alternative is to continue to lock people up for extended sentences with little regard for how this is crushing American society financially and spiritually.

Countless inmates (arrested for both nonviolent and violent crimes) pose no discipline problems within the prison system. After years of being incarcerated, many have redeemed themselves. Their behaviors have changed, and yet they are not released. At some point, keeping such a person locked up becomes simply cruel.

If given the opportunity, incarcerated people can change and show transformation and growth through such means as earning a high school equivalency diploma, staying off drugs, getting back with their families, connecting with their children, and connecting with the families of victims.

But can the public forgive such people and offer them a second chance to become productive citizens, instead of their remaining costly, endless drains on our resources?

Milwaukee, May 28, 2014

The writer is dean and a professor at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

To the Editor:

The problem with prison overcrowding is that prison operation is becoming a new major moneymaker, at the expense of the most vulnerable.

The Corrections Corporation of America was formed in 1983, during a Reagan privatization moment, and since then, the business of running our federal, state and local prisons has been slowly passed on to private companies whose goal is to have all their jail beds filled to keep the wheels of commerce churning profits.

Many of these companies hire out the inmates to provide essentially slave labor for manufacturers, paying the inmates little or nothing — slave wages.

It’s hard to stop a moneymaking operation once the shareholders are happy. Sounds like another great financial successful story.

Peterborough, N.H., May 25, 2014