As I See it: There's Gotta Be a Better Way
(Column: Editor-At-Large: As I See It)
Boot the SHU and keep us out of prison
Marvin Spieler
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The mentally ill who have been criminalized by the criminal "justice" system for primarily petty crimes and are put in the Special Housing Units (SHUs) of New York State prisons is really an insane practice.

I never was in a SHU, but I can imagine it from being in the quiet room or the rubber room as it was called many times. I am told that the SHU is at least ten times worse than the quiet room. The SHU should be called the Solitary Housing Unit as that is what it really is. It is solitary confinement for 23-hours per day. Exercise is allowed out of the cell for one hour. Being in the quiet room lasts a few hours while the SHU can last for days, months, or even years at a time.

At best it accomplishes nothing positive for the mentally ill and at worse it kills them by suicide. This is what the New York State Department of Corrections now calls treatment for the mentally ill.

I would suggest a step in the right direction if New York State insists on criminalizing its mentally ill: put them in forensic hospitals. Whether the site of these hospitals be in converted state hospital buildings or converted prisons, this would be a more humane method of treating the mentally ill with mental health professionals. To dump them, medication non-compliant prisoners, in a general population prison without giving them full psychiatric treatment in a humane atmosphere will cause more problems down the road for society. What the SHU can cause is untreatable mental illness.

It seems to me, living in the early part of the twenty-first century, that the mentally ill are given a large step backward in how they are treated for their illnesses. While recovery is now possible for the mentally ill, ironically many are left to rot in the SHU for extended periods of time in general population prisons.

I believe the State should take the high road. New York State in the past was known to be an innovative, liberal state. Let us take the lead in rehabilitating our mentally ill by setting the standard for treatment by not using barbaric, outdated methods of treatment.

While having no direct experience with the SHU, I can imagine how disruptive it is. I spent more than thirty days in the Manhattan House of Detention (aka "the Tombs") in the 1960s. For someone with mental illness, being psychotic and accused of a crime, my experience was earth-shaking to say the least. I survived a situation I would never want to experience again, living in a cell designed for one with two other men. This was horrendous and unthinkably cruel. My bed consisted of three wool blankets on a slab of concrete. Some prisoners obtained razor blades. One wrong move on my part could cause me to bleed to death before anyone found me.

The food was substantial, primarily large quantities of starches like bread and mashed potatoes. I went to religious services once, but no lunch was saved for me in my absence. My future choice was simple: the right to religious freedom would be abridged. Why I was put in the general population with repeated felons by their own admission I will never know.

My experience has kept me wary of any policeman, fearful of arrest as one who has mental illness and I thank God for the day I left the Tombs alive. For these reasons I sympathize with the mentally ill in prisons and in particular, those in SHUs. While I counted my thirty-some days in prison, I consider myself lucky compared to today's criminalized mentally ill and the problems they must face.
In New York State, 8% of all inmates are placed in SHUs, four times the national average, with no maximum stays. According to figures documented by the Correctional Association, there are approximately 1,600 to 2,700 prisoners with mentally illness in NYS prison SHUs at any given time. The Office of Mental Health claims a slightly lower figure of approximately 1,200. One man with bipolar disorder has been lingering in a NYS prison SHU for the past 35 years.
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