Advocates for mentally ill inmates are lobbying New York State legislators to limit the use of special housing units (SHUs), a form of solitary confinement in the state prison system, says the Albany Times Union. “We’re punishing people twice for being mentally ill by locking them up in SHUs. It isn’t humane, and it must stop,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, chairman of the Corrections Committee. He has introduced a bill to abolish solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness.
Aubry has spoken with advocates with the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of New York State (NAMI-NYS). Advocates wore buttons proclaiming “Boot The SHU” and waved signs with slogans such as “Think Outside The Box.” In prison slang, the SHU is known as The Box.
The state corrections department uses SHUs for disciplinary cases and says the practice of the 23-hour daily confinement has reduced assaults on inmates and corrections officers. There are 1,567 beds in 38 SHUs at maximum and medium-security prisons. The state disputes advocates’ claims that SHU confinement can lead to mental illness or exacerbate existing psychological problems. “Our goal in sending inmates to disciplinary housing is to change their behavior,” said corrections Commissioner Glenn Goord.
Ray Ortiz, a former prisoner, said, “The Box isn’t treatment. It’s torture. We’re going to take the fight to boot the SHU to the legislators this year.”
Aubry praised Gov. George Pataki for seeking $6 million more in the corrections department budget and an extra $7 million in the state Office of Mental Health budget for additional services to treat mentally ill prisoners. “That’s a good thing, but it’s not a change in the law,” Aubry said. “My concern is that they’ll use the budget as a stalking-horse and the money won’t last. We need a law to say that we won’t put mentally ill people in SHUs.”