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Underfunded mental health treatment programs mean people wait for open spots from jail cells

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Underfunded mental health treatment programs mean people wait for open spots from jail cells

  • A prison strike in Minnesota actually got results

  • Migrants say they pay for inclusion on ‘la lista’ to make border crossing

  • Transgender woman arrested for giving birth name to police

  • Judge says California prisons continue to use unconstitutional gang determination to deny parole and throw people in solitary

  • How to legalize marijuana equitably

In the Spotlight

Underfunded mental health treatment programs mean people wait for open spots from jail cells

As a public defender in New York City, I once represented a woman accused of felony assault on a police officer. The charge was serious, but, given that the incident had sent her directly to the hospital and resulted in no injuries for the officer, combined with the lack of evidence against my client and the fact that she was transgender—making her a likely target for police abuse and harassment—I was reasonably optimistic about our chances of winning at trial. But her bail was high, and going to trial meant her waiting for weeks or months on Rikers Island, where she was housed with men. Every day brought taunts and abuse, so she opted for solitary confinement. At Rikers, she was also deprived of necessary mental health, drug, and medical treatment. The prosecutor’s only offer required years of prison time, but the judge made a different offer: Plead guilty and walk out of jail right away, with the promise to complete a residential treatment program. My client jumped at the offer because she was desperate to get out. She chose not to take the case to trial because, although she did not want to stain her record with a violent felony offense, she could not stand to be at Rikers another day. I couldn’t blame her.

But she didn’t get either. Despite pleading guilty, my client came back to court week after week, month after month, waiting for a bed to open up at a treatment facility that could meet her needs. The social worker on the case and I made daily (and nightly) calls, visited facilities, chased down every option, desperate for a free bed. According to the plea agreement, my client did not need to be incarcerated. But there she was, on Rikers Island for months, waiting.

Now, a lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York is alleging that people who suffer from mental illness are regularly held months or years past their release dates in New York state prisons because appropriate housing is not available. One plaintiff was released from prison in September 2017, but “though he is technically free, he is still confined to a cell because of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic dilemma: The state requires people like him to be released to a supportive housing facility, but there is not one available,” writes Ashley Southall for the New York Times. The lawsuit seeks to force Governor Andrew Cuomo to address a shortage of housing for people with serious mental illnesses who need help adjusting to life outside prison. “The men are no longer being held in prison because they committed offenses, their lawyers argue, but because the state has determined they are likely to become homeless once released—a practice they contend amounts to discrimination under federal civil rights laws.” [Ashley Southall / New York Times]

The lawsuit does not ask for the six men to be freed; instead, it asks the state to remove “the only barrier to their release” by creating more supportive housing for mentally ill people being released from prison. The plaintiffs cite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, Olmstead v. L.C., “which held that public institutions must provide community-based services to people with mental illnesses who need and desire them,” writes Southall. The “deinstitutionalization” movement focused on taking people out of psychiatric hospitals and placing them in settings where they can participate in society. But as psychiatric hospitals closed and law enforcement expanded, more people with mental illness wound up incarcerated. Treatment programs in prisons and jails are inadequate and underfunded. Cuomo committed to building 20,000 new supportive housing units, and state lawmakers have allocated $2.6 billion to create the first 6,000 units by 2021, but, according to the lawsuit, the Office of Mental Health has neglected requests from counties across the state to build additional housing for former prisoners with mental disorders. “Such housing programs, where residents receive psychiatric care and learn skills like cooking and using mass transit, offer opportunities to participate in public life that prisons do not, mental health advocates say.” [Ashley Southall / New York Times]

Across the country, people with mental illness are held in cells for lack of treatment options. In Minneapolis, a man with severe mental illness was held in the county jail for 92 days last year without treatment “because of a severe and worsening shortage of beds in state psychiatric facilities,” according to the Star Tribune. Charges of disorderly conduct were dropped but he remained in custody for months, while his mental state deteriorated. At one point, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek wrote a “strongly worded letter” to the governor, demanding that the man be admitted to a psychiatric facility immediately. “This will continue to go on, and people will continue to be pushed aside,” Stanek said. “The state does not have the capacity and is not prepared to deal with those who suffer from severe mental illness, and they don’t appear willing to do much going forward.” A 2013 Minnesota law that requires a psychiatric bed be found within 48 hours for any incarcerated person determined to be mentally ill backfired, resulting in an influx of court-ordered admissions, causing wait times to spike. [Chris Serres / Star Tribune]

In Nebraska, where wait times for incarcerated people who need mental health treatment are over two months in many places, state legislators have argued that the state psychiatric hospital and community programs need more funding. The funds for community centers “have been cut and cut and cut,” said one state senator. “We’ve done this to ourselves. We’ve heard providers come to hearings saying they need more money and everyone throws their hands in the air.” [Nancy Hicks / Lincoln Journal Star] In Alaska last fall, people were sent from the state-run psychiatric hospital to jails, amid workplace safety fears and staffing shortages at the hospital. “It is shocking and outrageous that any person with an illness could be diverted from a hospital to a jail for evaluation and treatment,” said Stephanie Rhoades, a retired Anchorage Superior Court judge who founded the state mental health court. “There is no way that we would treat a person with a heart attack in this manner if the medical hospitals were full.” [Devin Kelly / Governing]

Stories From The Appeal


Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo via Minnesota Department of Corrections

A Prison Strike in Minnesota Actually Got Results. Most prison strikes are met with retaliation and abuse, but one recent work stoppage is starting to pay off. [Raven Rakia]

Migrants Say They Pay for Inclusion on ‘La Lista’ to Make Border Crossing. Migrants near Brownsville, Texas, say that if they don’t bribe Mexican officials they’re stuck at the bottom of a list of people seeking refuge in the U.S. via international bridges. [Debbie Nathan]

Stories From Around the Country

Transgender woman arrested for giving birth name to police: A Latinx transgender woman sued the New York Police Department after she was arrested for “false personation” last year when she gave them both her former and current names during questioning. The ACLU, which filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of Linda Dominguez, alleges that police stopped Dominguez for cutting across a park after dark  on her way home. Dominguez speaks limited English and, when asked for her name, gave the officers her birth name. At the 44th Precinct, Dominguez explained to a Spanish-speaking officer that she was transgender and had legally changed her name to Linda. She was held overnight in a cell, linked to a bar with pink handcuffs. The next day she was taken to court and charged with trespass and false personation, charges that were later dismissed. The NYPD’s patrol guide prohibits charging transgender people with false personation over confusion about names. According to the ACLU, “The policy changes look good on paper but, as Linda’s case illustrates, they have not translated into necessary changes on the ground.” [Michael Gartland and Rocco Parascandola / New York Daily News]

Judge says California prisons continue to use unconstitutional gang determination to deny parole and throw people in solitary: Late last week, a federal judge found that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is “systemically violating the due process rights of prisoners … by repeatedly relying on unreliable and even fabricated confidential information to send California prisoners to solitary confinement,” according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. The court also found CDCR’s constitutionally flawed gang validations deny people a fair opportunity for parole. Under a 2015 landmark agreement, nearly 1,600 prisoners were released from solitary confinement and CDCR agreed to reform the process by which prisoners were placed and held in solitary. Now, prisoners can no longer be sent to solitary based solely on gang affiliation, only for specific and serious rules violations. The judge extended the terms of the settlement by one year, including monitoring by plaintiff’s counsel. Gang validations, wrote the judge, “were sometimes based on as little as … the artwork they possessed (such as art containing Aztec or Mayan images)” and also found that “when prisoners dispute their validation at their parole hearings, Commissioners consider the challenge itself to constitute evidence of dishonesty and a manifestation of a lack of remorse or credibility.” [Center for Constitutional Rights]

How to legalize marijuana equitably: Many states are considering marijuana legalization. But faced with continued inequities in states that have already taken this step—studies show that marijuana arrests still target people of color and that sales primarily benefit white investors—advocates in these states are demanding bills that would repair the harm that prohibition has caused. The Appeal: Political Report talked to advocates in Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey about the specific measures that they believe legalization legislation should contain. The advocates discuss the importance of automatic expungement of criminal records, reinvesting revenue into previously targeted communities, and helping marginalized communities play a role in the nascent marijuana industry. “We can’t move forward into the new world where marijuana will be legal and not take extra steps to repair that harm,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey office. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]   

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