Rikers Island has been making headlines recently after two men’s deaths in the jail and a former inmate murdering a 7-year-old boy — all of whom suffered from mental illness — led to officials questioning the competency of the city Departments of Health and Correction.
The City Council called both agencies to sit before joint committees for an oversight hearing last Thursday.
“These long-term trends, years in the making, are clearly unacceptable, and reversing them is my top priority,” Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said. “But as a correction professional with 40 years experience, I must assure you that the process will not be quick and it will not be easy.”
Ponte took over the billion-dollar agency in April.
According to DOC, the percentage of metally ill inmates jumped from 24 percent in 2007 to 34 percent this year. A third of those suffer from serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
“A lot of us think there could even be more than that,” Councilman Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) said after the hearing. “The staff is not prepared to handle that number of mentally ill inmates.”
Miller said at the hearing DOC made a big deal about the increase in training new recruits would receive.
According to the report, the upcoming graduating class of officers will receive eight more hours of training, which Miller and many councilmembers found to be not nearly enough.
“I suspect there is no concrete plan for what to do,” he said. “You have a lot of things going on right now and a lot of emotions dictated by the circumstances of what happened with those young kids in Brooklyn. A lot of people want answers, I want answers too.”
Treatment of mentally ill inmates has been the subject of debate for some time now, especially when it comes to solitary confinement or seg., as it is commonly referred to.
According to DOC, the average sentence is 14 days though there is no maximum number of days an inmate can serve.
But the problem that many lawmakers have is the long waiting list for seg. and what that means for the rest of the Rikers community.
DOC representatives reported a waiting list of 50 to 70 people with a two-day turnover for a spot in solitary confinement.
This means, on any given day, scores of potentially dangerous inmates waiting to be taken to seg. are free to associate with their peers, which can and has resulted in a number of violent attacks.
Between 2010 and 2013, slashing and stabbing incidents doubled from 34 to 58 and assaults on staff jumped from 500 to 646.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Maspeth) called for top-down change and more communication between DOC and DOH.
“I just find it odd that the DOC and the DOH don’t inform one another as to what’s going on,” she said. “I think it would be helpful for these agencies to know as much as they can about an inmate with a mental illness.”
Other officials made their points on DOC and Rikers as a whole, as well.
Crowley asked if the DOC could partner with groups like the Fortune Society to assist inmates being released who may not have a place to live.
“There is a lot more than one problem or one group we need to deal with,” Miller said. “I submit that there are a number of things going on that need to be improved upon to make the city safer for civilians and other inmates.”
Last week, Mayor de Blasio appointed a task force to rethink how the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill but many councilmembers struggled to understand exactly how the group would work.
“We all want to make sure that this task force is going to be doing something to improve the conditions,” Crowley said.
DOH Commissioner Mary Bassett told the Council mental health and violence in jails are intertwined.
“We have begun to discuss with the Department of Correction certain inmates’ behavior at the end of every tour,” she said. “We want to better recognize potential problems before something happens.”
Bassett said the most difficult part would be to have these conversations without violating an inmate’s right to medical privacy.
DOC officials said they began to reform 19 mental observation units, where the recent deaths of two inmates with psychological problems occurred.
In February, Jerome Murdough, a veteran who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was found dead in a 101-degree cell. It is alleged he baked to death. His family plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit.
“We want to make sure there isn’t another Murdough situation,” Crowley said. “It is unacceptable.”
Recently, the September 2013 death of Bradley Ballard was revealed.
According to Ballard’s family, the 39-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
He died after sexually mutilating himself while locked up in solitary confinement for seven days.
Both deaths are still under investigation.
The three-hour hearing brought attention to many ongoing issues at Rikers and lawmakers including Councilmembers Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Miller have and will tour the facility for more information.