|Waiting for the “SHU” to drop|
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
New York lawmakers have voted and the results are in: their shoes definitely don’t fit. The shoes in question, though, are actually the state correctional facilities’ SHUs, also known as Special Housing Units, which are used for disciplinary solitary confinement. Currently, an estimated 500 to 700 inmates with serious psychiatric disabilities are in SHUs, but a new bill is aiming to keep these individuals from going there in the first place.
In July, the New York Senate unanimously passed the ‘SHU bill.’ If the Assembly approves it in September, the new law would require New York to create “residential treatment units” for inmates who have serious mental illness. The state also will have to offer of out-of-cell therapeutic treatment for a minimum of four hours a day, five days a week.
“This bill will presumptively make people who have serious psychiatric disabilities ineligible to be placed in SHUs and instead placed in a residential mental health unit,” says Jennifer Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy for the Urban Justice Center .
In New York state, inmates receive “tickets” for various behavioral infractions. A SHU ticket can put an inmate in solitary confinement for days, weeks, months, or even years depending on the severity of the incident.
“Inmates are in there 23 hours a day, sometimes 24 hours a day, and only let out for one hour of recreation by themselves in an outdoor area,” Parish explains. “They are alone without any human contact, and even if the facility’s mental health services provides someone, that person speaks to the inmate through the cell door. It’s a situation that is devastating for their mental health.”
The ticket system can be especially devastating because the unlimited amount of SHU time one can receive, and tickets can pile on top of tickets. During that time, mental health conditions like depression, mania, delusions, in addition to suicide attempts can be exacerbated.
“For example, if an inmate tries to commit suicide in a SHU, that is an infraction that can earn them another SHU ticket,” Parish says. “It becomes a downward spiral. It’s happened that inmates have gotten SHU tickets longer than their actual prison sentences. There’s no limit at all. They could end up getting years and years in solitary confinement.”
“Basically, my view is that around the country, for poor people and particularly poor people of color, prisons have now become the asylums for the mentally ill,” adds Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York. He directs the association’s Prison Visiting Project, which has statutory authority to visit and monitor the state’s male prisons.
“Disciplinary segregation is the dumping ground for those with mental illness,” Beck says. “It’s incredibly inhumane, and would be difficult to cope with even if you were in good shape.”
The SHU bill would impose strict deadlines on the ticket system. Inmates with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder who are ticketed for more than 30 days must be diverted from the SHU and assessed by a mental health professional within one business day. Prison officials can decide not to remove an individual from SHU if doing so would endanger the inmate, staff, or other inmates. While remaining in SHU, the inmate would still receive extended hours of therapy.
“The point of the SHU bill is to intervene early before an inmate acts up, so hopefully if someone sees an individual acting inappropriately, instead of writing a ticket, mental health services will be made available,” Beck says.
How these decisions are made will depend on the facility.
“In New York, they categorize individuals by level of treatment,” explains Parish. “There will be a committee that determines which level an individual falls into. It may be made by the superintendent along with the mental health staff, but in every facility there will be an internal review.”
The bill’s primary goal is to divert the mentally ill out of the SHU into a therapeutic environment, and to prevent massive ticket sentences from punishing the mentally ill. Beck says the conditions in the SHU itself are more often than not the reason for a sentence extension.
“Being in SHU almost inevitably leads to further confrontations,” Beck explains. “More and more confinement results in the inmate’s further inability to cope with the disciplinary approach. They spend more time in prison, end up maxing out of sentences, and missing chances at parole.”
This is exactly what’s been happening to Leah Gitter’s 38-year-old godson, who is currently in the Attica Correctional Facility SHU. He was originally sentenced to four and three-quarters to twenty years in prison, and has been incarcerated for ten years.
“He’s just been in prison so long, and now does not have a good institutional record,” Gitter says. “He’s been to four parole boards and hasn’t been able to get out. He’s really being punished for having bipolar disorder.”
Gitter’s godson has received three SHU tickets so far this year: the first from January to April 13th, the second from April 23rd until the end of July. The third gave him an additional three months in the SHU.
“The acting out or whatever they call it is all due to his symptomatic behavior,” Gitter explains. “This is the way he goes into these actions when he’s not well. Instead of punishing him, they should be treating him to prevent these behaviors.”
Gitter fought for the SHU bill by joining the Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement protests in Albany and New York City. She also petitioned, wrote letters, and talked to assembly persons.
“I feel very strongly that you don’t punish people for being sick,” Gitter says. “My godson’s only going to get worse in that environment. It’s really been a long, hard journey.”
Gitter is happy the bill could soon be helping many people, but still fears it might not be enough.
“My godson and I have been talking about how with the new bill you’ll have to get a SHU ticket in order to get the treatment,” she says.
Beck says Gitter’s perception is accurate, but that the bill’s goal is to prevent mentally ill inmates from going into SHU in the first place.
“This bill only deals with people facing disciplinary confinement; it’s not a bill about general mental health services,” Beck adds. “Our aim was to get people out of disciplinary confinement, so it does not assure everyone with serious mental illness will get services. What we’re hopeful of is that the evaluations will show which persons are mentally ill and then those tickets will be dismissed and that individual’s case will be appropriately dealt with.”
In the meantime, bill advocates everywhere keep hoping that come September, the wait for the other shoe to drop will finally be over.
BJS report on inmate mental health
A history of solitary confinement
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