ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The head of the troubled New York City jail system said Thursday it's critical to send mentally ill inmates to treatment programs instead of a lockup.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte told state lawmakers that Rikers Island is poorly equipped to be a mental health treatment center. The primary goal, one he shares with the medical staff, is to keep staff and inmates safe, he said.
"Violence at Rikers Island the past five or six years has gone through the roof," Ponte said, adding that assaults on his medical staff have tripled.
Dr. Homer Venters, head of the jail's health services, testified alongside Ponte. He said admission medical screenings done on every incoming inmate show about 25 percent have mental illnesses, though that diagnosis applies to about 38 percent of the daily population of about 11,500. Those inmates tend to stay twice as long.
Ponte said they've taken steps, like limiting solitary confinement, to improve treatment at Rikers, but acknowledged many issues remain. The city also has recently established some courts, including one in Manhattan, focused on handling cases involving the mentally ill.
"We've become the de facto mental hospitals," Ponte said of the jails. "Diversion is critical."
New York City jails have come under increasing scrutiny since The Associated Press earlier this year first exposed the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates — an ex-Marine imprisoned in Rikers who an official said "basically baked to death" in a 101-degree cell and a diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone for seven days inside a cell last fall.
Lawmakers called the joint hearing of Assembly committees on correction and mental health following these and other reports of afflicted prisoners getting inadequate care.
The hearing also examined other local jails, where suspects go while awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, as well as the state's prisons that house about 52,250 inmates with longer sentences.
About 9,300 state inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, with 2,300 considered seriously mentally ill, said Donna Hall, director of forensic services at the state Office of Mental Health, which provides treatment. She said the clinicians seldom, if ever, remove or lower those designations.
Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York testified that most remain in the general prison population and get limited services. Fewer illnesses now are judged serious, which would give those inmates more care and keep them from the "torture" of solitary confinement, he said.
Alicia Barazza tearfully told legislators that her 21-year-old son suffered from severe mental illness and committed suicide two weeks ago in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison. He'd gone off his psychotropic medications and had been in crisis, she said. He was sent to prison from Albany County at 17 for third-degree arson. His mother said he'd been abused by another inmate in prison.
Corrections officials declined to comment, citing the potential of a lawsuit.
Advocates said one recurring problem is defendants not allowed by police to take their medications after they're arrested.
Glenn Leibman of the Mental Health Association called for presumptively enrolling inmates in Medicaid so they can get needed prescriptions when they leave.
Damian DePauw, 35, said he went to Washington County Jail on an assault charge after a violent psychiatric episode. In jail, when he felt symptoms worsening, he said he told a guard he needed medicine and was told to wait for the nurse that night, who said she'd need a prescription from the jail psychiatrist three days later. Over the weekend, he became more delusional, assaulted another prisoner who had threatened him, was stripped and put into a solitary cell, where he rammed his head into the metal door repeatedly, in an effort to knock himself out, until he split open his scalp and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, he said.