In February of 2015, a 56 year old homeless veteran named Jerome Murdough died of hyperthermia in his jail cell at Rikers Island. Arrested for trespassing in a public housing building in Harlem, and with his bail set at $2,500, Mr. Murdough effectively paid for his misdemeanor with his life. This, after the correction officer on duty on the night of his death failed to check in on him in his unbearably hot cellblock, which adversely exacerbated the effects of the anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication he was taking to treat his schizophrenia, and thus caused his death. His story, however, is one of many highlighting the quality (or lack thereof) of the health care treatment reserved for individuals suffering from mental illnesses in the New York City justice system.
Due to the pervasive disregard for the lives of the mentally ill in the New York City jails, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has sought to repair the broken system. In June of 2014, for example, the administration released a report of the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System. A $130 million, four-year investment, the recommendations of the Task Force’s initiative include plans to expand training for police officers so that they will be better equipped to recognize the behaviors and symptoms of mental illness and substance use, and encourage diversion from incarceration to mental health services for individuals who do not pose a threat to society. In addition, it plans to expand supervised release programs and pilot a new “science-based” risk assessment tool for judges and providers to identify and divert individuals who do not pose a risk of re-offending or flight. The Task Force’s plan also intends to expand effective treatment in jail through the use of “Crisis Intervention Teams” composed of both corrections and health workers, as well as upon release and re-entry.
Despite the detailed nature of the Task Force’s plan, the initiative is woefully insufficient to respond meaningfully to the human rights and fiscal crises posed by the criminalization and overrepresentation of the mentally ill in the New York City’s criminal justice system. Since April of 2015, for example, 40 percent of the population at Rikers – a total of 4,000 men and women at any given time –have been diagnosed with a mental illness. This has effectively, and barbarically, made the jail the largest mental health facility in the state. This perverse reality, which has reached a crises point in New York City, has been decades in the making.
In the wake of the discovery of psycho- pharmaceutical interventions by the medical field in the 1950s and 1960s, a movement arose to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill – that is, move them out of mental health treatment facilitates and back into the community. It’s important to note that this advocacy around deinstitutionalization occurred at a time when psychiatrists, state legislatures, and activists, among others, were optimistic that community health clinics would replace the nation’s state mental hospitals. However, not nearly enough resources were allocated – much less sustained – to breathe life into the initial optimism inspired by the deinstitutionalization movement. In turn, the mentally ill were left to fend for themselves and not able to have consistent access to their desperately needed medications as well as ongoing out patient treatment.
As a result, we are now facing a public health crisis, where individuals who enter the criminal justice system for behavior that stems primarily from their mental illness receive inadequate health care in the city’s local jails. To make matters worse, the inadequacy of the mental health service, compounded by the design and operations of jails, only add to the mental deterioration of those suffering from mental illness. Rather than investing in more rehabilitative, local mental health treatment, our leaders have insisted in actively contributing to the institutionalization of the mentally ill into jails, where tragedies like Mr. Murdough’s are widespread.
Instead of effectively fixing the broken criminal justice system, our government has effectively legitimized it, perpetuating its growth through ineffective policies. The time is now to demand criminal justice reform for the mentally ill, focusing on the root causes of the problem – a lack of affordable and accessible mental health services – instead of maintaining the superficial policies that are doomed to perpetuate the misguided, abusive and costly practice of criminalizing and locking up the mentally ill.