New York Releases Prisoners To Avoid COVID-19 Infections, But Not The Seriously Mentally Ill

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LATE BREAKING NEWS: The Cuomo administration has agreed to remove the ‘significant mental illness’ disqualifier and review all parolees who were previously disqualified to confirm whether any of them now qualify for release.” The question now is: where will they go?

(4-23-20) Many jails across our country are releasing prisoners vulnerable to Covid-19, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has decided not to extend that mercy to inmates with “significant mental illness.”

The governor announced several weeks ago that he would begin freeing prisoners who were in jail because of “technical parole violations.” Technical violations are instances where a parolee fails to follow the rules of his/her release, such as maintaining employment, paying court fees, and showing up for appointments with parole officers.

The seriously mentally ill often have trouble following such rules, violate their parole, and end up back in jail.

The state has added the seriously mentally ill to a no early release list with inmates convicted of sex crimes, domestic violence, violent crimes involving weapons, and homeless prisoners who don’t have an “existing” residence.

Jennifer J. Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy at the Urban Center, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit based in New York City, called the administration’s actions “blatant discrimination,” and noted: “This exclusion of people with serious mental health concerns is just the latest example of New York incarcerating people with mental health challenges instead of providing for their needs in the community.”

New York already is being sued for keeping seriously mentally ill prisoners in jails and prisons after they have completed their sentences.

That’s right – after they’ve done their time they remain incarcerated because there are no programs for them if they were released. No shelter, no evidence based recovery efforts.

The state justifies its actions by claiming the seriously mentally ill continue to be a danger to themselves and others.  So instead of providing services to help those who are sick, the state is punishing them for being ill.

A lack of community services, especially housing, is a major contributor to why jails and prisons have become the largest public facilities now housing the serious mentally ill. More than 2.2 million individuals with serious mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. Some 365,000 individuals with serious mental illnesses are incarcerated, most because of crimes committed while they were psychotic.

Last week, I wrote about a 2010 public health protocol in Alabama that surfaced earlier this year that instructed hospitals to “not offer mechanical ventilator support for patients, who were being treated for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, “severe or profound mental retardation,”  “moderate to severe dementia,” “severe traumatic brain injury” and other cognitive problems.

Anthony J. Annucci’s decision as acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, to not release inmates with mental illnesses is another sad example of how public officials discriminate against Americans with mental disorders.

The Urban Center is asking readers to sign a letter by midnight today that asks Cuomo to overrule Annucci’s declaration.

Temporary Services

Because doctors have warned that homeless individuals, many of whom have mental health and addiction issues, are more likely than others to be stricken with the corona virus, several communities have found ways to provide temporary shelter to reduce homelessness.

Fairfax County, where I live, is negotiating with three hotels to house homeless individuals during the pandemic.  That’s 223 rooms for those who are at a high risk.

My friend and fellow Corporation for Supportive Housing board member, Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, recently announced that a surprising large number of homeless individuals sleeping in Boston shelters had the virus but were asymptomatic. “Asymptomatic spread is something we’ve underestimated overall, and it’s going to make a big difference,” Dr. O’Connell told CNN.

“Two weeks ago, the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program noticed a small group of people had tested positive for the coronavirus at a shelter in the city’s South End,” CNN reported. “To be safe, they coordinated with the state government to do universal testing of the shelter population over two nights. Out of the nearly 400 guests tested, 146 tested positive for Covid-19, according to O’Connell. “This caught us unprepared, but the even more surprising finding is we screened all of them, and none had a fever, and very few had other symptoms.”

I’ve been reading lots of speculation about how this pandemic will change our country – a possible end to department stores, no large sporting events, etc.  I wonder if it will change how we treat those with serious mental illnesses.

Will we further stigmatize, demonize, and punish them by keeping them incarcerated or will we look at temporary services that progressive communities are taking, such as providing housing, and realize those needs aren’t going to end when this crisis is over?

Here are some important excerpts from the Urban Center’s letter to Gov. Cuomo.

“An extensive body of empirical research has established that serious mental health concerns, and attendant chronic stress, anxiety, or depression compromise the immune system’s ability to defend the body against viral infections. Research suggests that anxiety and related disorders may make people vulnerable to various medical conditions, including respiratory illnesses. Depression may also affect the immune system and contribute to prolonged infection.

“For far too long, prisons and jails have been the dumping ground for people with mental health needs. New York has failed to provide robust, person-centered support for thousands of New Yorkers with the greatest needs. Now in the midst of this pandemic, having a serious mental health concern is actually keeping people in prison.

“Over the last decade, the prison population has decreased significantly while the percentage of people on the mental health caseload continues to grow. In New York City, the jail population has dropped by 20% during this crisis, but people with mental health needs are not being released at the same rate – instead increasing from 43% to 49% of the population.”




About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.