Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Black Hole in the East River

The New York Times, for all it's flaws, is still indispensable as one of the last redoubts of journalism. This should make your blood boil. According to an internal study, which the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tried to keep secret, prison guards at Rikers Island assaulted and seriously injured 129 inmates over an 11 month period. That's "serious injuries" only, which means they were too severe to be treated in the prison clinics. More than 3/4 of the victims have mental illness diagnoses.

There have been a couple of recent incidents of mentally ill Rikers Island inmates dying from neglect. One guy cooked to death in an overheated jail cell, another died after ingesting detergent and then being ignored as he begged for medical help. But this is different -- this is guards beating the crap out of people, sometimes in revenge for having urine thrown at them or the like, sometimes to control people who are acting out, sometimes apparently just for fun.

So yeah, impunity for corrections officers, as well as terrible conditions in the jail and terrible working conditions for the officers, is intolerable. But here's the worse problem -- about 4,000 out of 11,000 Rikers inmates are diagnosed with mental illnesses, which exceeds the entire census of psychiatric inpatients in the state. Jail is where we send mentally ill people today.

And this has been building for a long time. Back in grad school I took a course called something like Social Control of Deviance Through the Courts, which was taught by a judge. We took a field trip to the Massachusetts high security prison, and we met with a group of lifers. Most of them were career criminals who had been in and out of jail for much of their lives until they finally got the big ticket. And they told us they had seen the change. You would know the guys, back in the day, one of them said,  but now half of these guys belong in the Pine Street Inn. That's Boston's big homeless shelter.

The judge explained what was happening: mandatory sentencing laws. It used to be he had discretion. Mentally ill people sometimes do things like trespassing, random destruction of property, aggressive panhandling, subsistence theft, inappropriate sexual expression, which gets them arrested. The judge could commit these people to treatment. Now he can't, he has to send them to jail. And that is obviously the worst possible place for a mentally ill person to be. Yeah yeah, criminals get a tautological diagnosis of sociopathy but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about psychosis, bipolar disorder, and the like, combined with social marginalization and deprivation.

It's a crime against humanity.


Don Quixote said...


MissFifi said...

The mentally ill, the drug addict. Prison is never the right solution for these people and yet it is the one "solution" we keep on using and it continues to fail. Resources need to be allotted to treatment centers for both groups, but I doubt the government or the general public want to help foot that bill. Instead they want to bitch about it and want someone else to pay for it. I do think the Insurance companies can find a way to profit, but who knows?
The greater good has turned into "Not in my backyard".

Cervantes said...

Right Fifi -- and it's not as though prison is free.

As for health insurance, the ACA requires mental health and substance abuse coverage to be included in plans sold on the exchanges. We'll see what difference that makes, but most of these people will be on Medicaid, of course, which generally pays crappily for behavioral health services, so people really don't get what they need.