The New York City Department of Correction has stopped its controversial use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates who break the rules, a shift the Wall Street Journal says jail officials are hailing as groundbreaking. The last of prisoners held in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates at Rikers Island jail were reassigned Dec. 31, and what is known as the punitive segregation program has been permanently closed, said Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro. The segregation program, started in 1998, has been criticized by advocates for the mentally ill. Before the changes, city jail populations on a given day included 400 mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, out of a total population between 12,000 and 13,000.
In solitary confinement, prisoners could be alone in cells for 23 hours a day. For the first six months of 2013, the average punishment for a mentally ill inmate sent to punitive segregation was 53½ days. Inmates who aren’t mentally ill and break jail rules can still be put in solitary confinement. The department decided to close the punitive segregation unit for the mentally ill by the end of 2013, “and we are proud to have met this significant milestone,” Schriro said. Instead of sending mentally ill inmates who break the rules to the segregation unit, referred to as “the bing,” those inmates are now assigned to one of two units. Inmates diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill,” such as those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, will be sent to the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation, which officials say is modeled after an inpatient hospital psychiatric ward. Inmates diagnosed with less serious mental illnesses who violate jail rules will be assigned to the Restrictive Housing Unit.