Time to Fix the Mental-Health Horrors That Plague Rikers Island

By Randal John Meyer
This article appeared on New York Post on August 10, 2015.

The jails at New York City’s Rikers Island have rightly been the focus of intense scrutiny in the last two years.

And while reformers have taken a step in the right direction, far more must be done to address a key driver of the disturbing facts behind the jail’s reputation as the “dumping ground” for the city’s mentally ill.

News outlets have called Rikers a “house of horrors jail” where “medieval levels of violence” are “meted out with startling ferocity.”

An investigation by US Attorney Preet Bharara found systemic abuse. The scrutiny culminated this year in a class-action lawsuit, Nunez v. United States, brought by the Legal Aid Society and the Department of Justice.

The parties agreed to a settlement that includes significant reforms, requiring the adoption of a new use-of-force policy that requires federal administrative monitoring, a pilot program for prison-guard body cameras and more surveillance in general.

New York City’s elected officials must continue to work to ensure the culture of abuse at Rikers truly changes.

Unfortunately, these changes aren’t enough. What’s missing are systemic reforms like comprehensive medical care and mental-health-policy changes.

According to an Occupy protestor recently sentenced to 90 days in Rikers, “the correction officers (COs) express their dissatisfaction by “talking about mental health care, how … people are being denied their bipolar, paranoid, schizophrenia, anxiety medications, and there’s nothing they can really do about it, because … they’re not really trained in that.”

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has complained about a lack of mental-health reform burdening COs.

Simply stated, prisons aren’t mental hospitals. Despite this, around 40 percent of the inmate population at Rikers is classified as mentally ill. And reform in this area has been feeble.

While Mayor de Blasio’s office has announced a $130 million set of programs to improve mental- health care in NYC prisons, it primarily relies on cutting off the flow of the mentally ill at the arrest source.

“The success of several of the programs will depend on the attitude of rank-and-file [NYPD] police officers, who would need to buy into such major changes,” The New York Times reported.

However, the NYPD training under the program reaches only certain blocks of officers and provides 36 hours of training — likely insufficient to change rank-and-file NYPD attitudes and practice.

The plan’s major fault is that it doesn’t remove the mentally ill from jail into properly funded mental-health facilities. Instead, it institutionalizes Rikers as half-asylum-half-jail by “improving” the prison environment — a new jail “Crisis Intervention Team” does not a mental hospital make.

Another much-needed reform involves hiring and training standards for prison staff. Inmate abuse is a result of present staff and its culture — there are plenty of good guards, but there are obviously a lot of bad apples.

“Dysfunction is … deeply embedded in the jail culture” at Rikers, according to the Times. In a 2013-14 investigation, “city investigators found that more than one-third [of recent hires] had problems that either should have disqualified them or needed further scrutiny.”

As it stands, “Correction officials estimated there were dozens of staff members with gang affiliations.” Cultural change will come from careful administration over time, constant re-examination of practices and by meticulously addressing other root causes.

Legislators must ensure better treatment for the mentally ill than incarceration.

A blanket prohibition on housing the mentally ill in jail for a prolonged time would be appropriate — a plan that would significantly reduce overcrowding concerns, which in turn contribute to the culture of violence.

Additionally, funding for mental-health facilities has waned as funding for prisons has increased over the last 30 years. New York City’s elected officials must continue to work to ensure the culture of abuse at Rikers truly changes.

The denial of basic and necessary medical treatment does bring practical problems, like instilling an animosity toward prison officials from inmates, for example.

But it also reflects poorly on our society’s respect for human life.

As Fyodor Dostoyevsky is alleged to have said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Randal Meyer is a legal associate in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.