On May 28, 2002, Disability Advocates, Inc., along with other public interest groups, filed a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of state prisoners with mental illness. The complaint alleged that the New York State Office of Mental Health [OMH] and the New York State Department of Correctional Services [DOCS] were deliberately indifferent to the serious mental health needs of state prisoners with mental illness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that a cycle of torment existed within the New York state prison system: a lack of adequate mental health care resulted in the placement of prisoners with mental illness in isolated confinement, which in turn caused greater psychiatric harm to those prisoners. Plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief.
Defendants filed a motion to transfer the case which was denied by the District Court (Judge Gerard E. Lynch) on October 31, 2002. Thereafter, the parties conducted discovery through 2006.
In April 2007, the parties reached a settlement (which is to go before the court on April 27.) The settlement requires that prisoners with serious mental illness confined in Special Housing Units (“SHU”) will now receive a minimum of 2 hours per day of out of cell treatment and that prisoners in the RMHU receive as many as 4 hours, in addition to an hour of recreation.
The settlement also provides:
- Multiple reviews of disciplinary sentences for prisoners with mental illness for the purpose of removing prisoners with serious mental illness from isolated confinement.
- Residential programs for 405 prisoners with serious mental illness.
- 215 Transitional Intermediate Care Program beds for prisoners with mental illness in general population.
- 90 additional Intermediate Care Program beds for prisoners with mental illness who cannot tolerate the prison general population.
- A 100 bed Residential Mental Health Unit (“RMHU”) which will provide 4 hours per day of out-of-cell programming for prisoners with serious mental illness who would otherwise be in SHU.
- The above are in addition to 310 residential mental health programs beds which the state instituted after the litigation commenced.
- An additional 20 psychiatric hospital beds for prisoners in need of acute care.
- Universal and improved mental health screening of all prisoners at admission to prison.
- Improved suicide prevention assessments, now required upon admission to SHU.
- Improved treatment and conditions for prisoners in psychiatric crisis in observation cells.
- Limits on the use of observation cells, where prisoners in psychiatric crisis are deprived of most possessions and clothing.
- Limits on punishment of prisoners with mental illness who hurt themselves because of their illness.
- Limits on the use of the punitive ‘restricted diet’ (a loaf made from bread and cabbage) as a punishment for misconduct by prisoners with serious mental illness.
- Elimination of isolated confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness in cells that have solid steel doors that severely isolate and restrict communication.
The new state budget provides monies to carry out the State’s commitments in the settlement agreement. These funds approximate over $50 million in capital construction costs; $2 million for additional OMH staffing for the 2007-2008 year to grow to $9 million when construction is complete; and nearly $2 million for additional DOCS staffing for the 2007-2008 fiscal year.Dan Dalton - 04/18/2007