Thousands of severely mentally ill inmates in New York prisons will receive more treatment as part of a landmark settlement in a federal lawsuit by prisoner advocates, reports the Albany Times Union. It was negotiated after five years of litigation and two weeks of a nonjury trial. “This greatly expands the mental health services available within the prison system,” said Cliff Zucker of Disability Advocates, a not-for-profit group in Albany that filed the case. About 8,000 of the state’s 63,000 inmates have been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Hundreds are kept in solitary confinement. Studies have shown they are far more likely to commit suicide or injure themselves.
Along with adding staff, resources and new beds for mentally ill inmates, the settlement bans some seemingly barbaric prison practices, such as stripping naked mentally ill inmates suffering an acute psychotic episode, segregating them in a Plexiglas-walled cubicle and leaving them with nothing but a thin pad on a cement floor, and the use of punitive “restricted diets,” a loaf made from bread and cabbage, for punishment. It also adds two to four hours of therapy outside the cell for mentally ill prisoners currently locked down in 23-hour solitary confinement. The recently adopted state budget provides an additional $60 million over three years sought by Gov. Eliot Spitzer for services for mentally ill inmates.