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Waiting for the “SHU” to drop
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 08/27/2007

Solitary 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.

Related Resources:

BJS report on inmate mental health

A history of solitary confinement


  1. worried mother on 09/27/2011:

    somone please help me to find a way to help my son .he is in attica prison(shu)and is put their a lot for long periods of time.he has a medical cndition.he is bypolar and has always been ADD.instead of trying to help him they .just put him in shu i whent to see him and found that they had beat him .and left a gash in his head.because they hit him from behind.and now he has this distant look in his eyes.as if he is not their.i caled the department of corrections.to investigate.however my son is being abuesed,mentaly and phisicaly.a am afraide for his verry life.because to them he is just another black.man in prison.so why are they called the department of corrections what are they correcting.they are killing them.inside and out.when i look in my son eyes i see feer and pain.and brokeness.from the damage.that they caused.who will fix that.dont get me wrong.if a person commit az crime he should pay but not with his life.he did not take a life.this has to stop.becaue .we half to pick up the peices when thay get done.this is America we adress mental illnes with doctors not fistst .please help me

  2. CCNNreader on 09/07/2007:

    I've been an NYS CO for more than eight years and I have seen many inmates seriously misbehave and interrupt the daily operations of a whole entire correctional facility. If these inmates are indeed mentally ill they should not be in a general confinement facility. Mentally ill inmates pose a serious threat to the safety of staff and fellow inmates alike. Their unstable behavior makes a dangerous place all that more dangerous. If the state cannot confine them for the safety of all others involved, tell me what can be done. -James Fitzpatrick

  3. murfunit on 09/07/2007:

    The "SHU" bill is interesting. Based on what I am reading the bill formalizes the road to a special housing unit. My own correctional experience (24 years at Rikers Island) tells me there is more to this bill than meets the eye. Effectively it places Correction Operations into the Mental Health business, especially since due process "tickets" required by the bill become a tracking mechanism for inmates with special behaviors that are remedied by special housing. Quite frankly Corrections does not belong in the Mental Health business, because our mission is pretty clearly stated: to provide care, custody and control to individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses by the courts. When we find our correctional processes being over run by medical or mental health processes, we find the character of our mission compromised. The best example I can use is about the inmate who acts out egregiously enough that he/she is required to be placed in Punitive Segregation. While the "due process" period is open, that inmate may be savvy enough to indicate that his/her actions are indicative of a mental health problem. The punitive process stops and the inmate goes through the mental health process. If the inmate crafts a good enough mental health defense, Punitive Segregation time may be avoided all together. Hence the Special Housing Unit is invented to answer this need. I think clearer guidelines and review boards that see this scenario clearly could plug loop holes that allow inmates to "play the system" to their advantage. Now for inmates with genuine psychosis or mental defect: the law should be followed with the inmate being turned over to the mental health professionals or the State Mental Health Department. I am afraid to say that Corrections has become the vehicle for holding many unsafe individuals from society, when other municipal agencies should be responsible for their care and treatment. This is where I think the "SHU" bill could become dangerous for inmates and correctional staff alike. It creates the potential to "shoe-horn" inmates into "SHU" housing that actually may not be suited for their needs. This adds a burden to correctional staff who have to deal with this action until someone makes a determination that this inmate did not belong in an "SHU." I personally feel that the Mental Health business needs a thorough review of its mission for mentally incapable people who act out dangerously, psychotically, and/or violently. Jail is not necessarily the answer for this group of people.

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