jails

City Seeks to Move Mentally Ill Inmates to Hospitals

A Rikers Island jail
A Rikers Island jail Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The de Blasio administration intends to develop facilities outside of Rikers Island and the city’s other jails that offer specialty care for inmates with mental-health issues, drug-related problems and complex medical needs, THE CITY has learned.

The city’s Correctional Health Services recently put out a call for prospective contractors to study the design and cost of creating what it calls “therapeutic housing units.” These “locked” facilities would be located “in or near three to six existing” city hospitals, according to the solicitation sent to nine preselected vendors on March 8.

The specialized housing units would likely be operated by Correctional Health Services and the Department of Correction, according to the three-page document.

It’s unclear how many beds the new units would contain.

Approximately 1,100 incarcerated people — 16 percent of the entire jail population — have been diagnosed with serious mental illness, according to Correctional Health Services, a division of the city’s Health + Hospitals that oversees medical care for inmates. That share has risen in recent years as the overall jail population has declined.

The move could anticipate a major shift from the original Rikers Island shutdown plan, which aims to place virtually all inmates — including those with serious health and mental-health needs — into four proposed new jails.

The proposal emerges as the Department of Correction prepares to enter into what is likely to be a contentious land-use review process for the new lockups — one planned for each borough except Staten Island and rising up to 50 stories high.

Advocates for inmates with mental-health diagnoses have pressed the de Blasio administration to redirect that population out of Correction Department jurisdiction.

In the absence of sufficient services, jails have become de facto psychiatric facilities nationally and in New York, Department of Correction acting warden John Gallagher told the Board of Correction last week.

“Until the country gets it together, builds hospitals, outpatient, this is the Band-Aid we’ve come up with,” he said to the board, the jails’ oversight body.

Retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman
Retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman Photo: John McCarten/City Council

A shift to hospital-based facilities would not just affect inmates with mental-health issues. Jail officials have long struggled to care for inmates with serious health problems requiring frequent medical attention and grueling trips between jail and hospitals.

Care Plan Touted as ‘Good Idea’

Retired chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who led the blue-ribbon panel that recommended the city close Rikers jails, commended the health-facilities effort.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Lippman. “One of the ways you can drive the jail population down is by getting people who need medical help the care that they need,” he added. “Often they committed criminal conduct because they have a (mental) problem.”

Advocates for steering criminal defendants with mental illness to treatment instead of jail have looked to Los Angeles, where the County Board of Supervisors voted last month to replace an old jail downtown with a mental-health treatment center. Some are concerned that New York is not going far enough.

Cheryl Roberts, executive director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, opposes having the Department of Correction staff at the therapeutic units.

“We have a chance right now to decouple the criminal-justice system from the mental-health system,” said Roberts, whose group advocates for diversion of inmates with serious mental illness into treatment instead of jail. “We should take it.”

The city jail system currently includes 17 mental-observation units comprised of 540 beds. An additional 181 beds are housed in specialized units called Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation and the Program for Accelerating Clinical Effectiveness.

An additional 68 “hospital forensic inpatient beds” for inmates who require an acute, inpatient level of hospital care are set aside at Bellevue Hospital, along with another 14 at Elmhurst Hospital.

This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.