Mental Health Issues In Prison Special Housing Units
(Column: Ask the Housing Experts)
Lauren Bholai-Pareti, Executive Director, Council on Homeless Policies and Services
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According to a report released December 7, 2000 by the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, approximately 5,500 New York State inmates are currently being held in 23-hour disciplinary lockdown. Prisoners call it "The Box." Corrections officials call the disciplinary cells "Special Housing Units" (SHU's). Human rights groups call it torture. Mental health professionals call it a breeding ground for mental illness.

The Corrections Department uses SHU's as a form of punishment for inmates who don't follow the rules. Inmates who are sent to a SHU are locked up in a 14' x 8' cell 23 hours per day. For one hour, they are released into an empty 9' x 7' caged balcony for "recreation." SHU's offer no rehabilitative services, no recreational programs, no educational programs, and no outside contact.

Psychological experts say even for people with no prior history of mental illness, detainment in a SHU can cause psychiatric symptoms, including depression, paranoia, agitation, manic activity, delusions, and even suicide. Inmates who already have a mental illness are more likely to be held in a SHU, because they may have greater difficulty complying with rules and social norms in the general prison population. Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has studied how SHU's impact inmates' mental health, submitted the following testimony in a lawsuit against Attica State Prison filed May 29th, 1996: "During the course of my involvement as an expert, I have had the opportunity to evaluate the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement in well over 100 prisoners…I have observed that many of the inmates so housed have histories of psychiatric and/or neurological difficulties, and for many inmates, incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting illness, or caused the appearance of an acute mental illness in individuals who had previously been free of any such illness."

Doctor Grassian is not the only expert questioning our nation's growing use of SHU's as a disciplinary tool. Human rights groups have argued for years that SHU's meet the definition of torture under international law. In March 2000, the Albany Times Union published a startling special report on the SHU's titled "The Hardest Time." In November 2001, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on crime and criminal justice, which included a statement of opposition to the increasing use of isolation units, "especially in the absence of due process, and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of such confinement on the mental health of inmates."

Under New York State law, there is no limit on the amount of time an inmate can spend in a SHU. There are also no clear administrative standards used to determine the length of time a prisoner spends in solitary for violations of prison rules. During their recent testimony before the Senate Task Force, the New York State Defenders Association stated that they know of prisoners who have received as much as eight years for relatively minor offenses for which no criminal charges were issued.

According to the Albany Times Union report, more than 80 percent of New York's 5,500 SHU inmates have spent more than six months in 23-hour lockdown. About 50 percent have been confined in a SHU for more than one year, about 150 people have been locked up in a SHU for more than five years, and a handful of people have spent more than 15 years in a New York State SHU. New York State is a leader in the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool, we introduced the practice to North America in the early 1800's, and the rate at which we currently use SHU's is more than four times the national average.

Despite the efforts of human rights groups, criminal justice advocates, and prisoners' rights activists, SHU's have remained a largely invisible issue in New York State. Most prisons are located far upstate and most prisoners are isolated from their families and their support networks. In addition, the public has little access to first-hand information, because the Department of Corrections rarely grants SHU access to the press or watchdog groups.

So, what can mental health advocates do to call attention to this disturbing issue? State Senator Vellmanette Montgomery has introduced a bill (S1634) that would limit the use of SHU's to extreme cases involving highly dangerous and violent behavior. It would also, except in extreme cases, limit SHU confinement to a maximum of 90 days. Cases in which someone is held longer would be reviewed every 90 days by an independent review board. The review board would include a mental health professional and a former inmate. The bill would also prevent inmates with mental illness from being confined in a SHU (whether the mental illness preceded such confinement or developed during the course of such confinement). Lastly, the bill would require that mental health professionals monitor the mental health status of SHU inmates, and it would allow mental health professionals to have confidential meetings with those inmates. Senator Montgomery, a Republican, faces an uphill battle to get the mostly Democratic Senate to vote on the bill. Companion legislation has been introduced in the Assembly (A2621) sponsored by Assembly member Arthur Eve from Buffalo. Both bills remain in committee in both houses.

You can help to make sure this doesn't continue to be an invisible issue by calling the following elected officials: Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (518) 455-3191; Governor Pataki (518) 474-8390; and Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver (518) 455-3791. Tell them that you are a registered voter and that you are extremely concerned for the 5,500 people currently locked up in Special Housing Units in New York State prisons. Urge their support for the legislation introduced by Senator Montgomery (S1634).
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