The New York Times examines one case in detail to illustrate the challenges of dealing with people with mental problems who cycle in and out of jail. For years, New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex has been filling with people like Michael Megginson, who have complicated psychiatric problems that are little understood and do not get resolved elsewhere, such as an unwashed man passed out in a public stairwell, a 16-year-old runaway, a drug addict, and a belligerent panhandler screaming in a subway car. In jail, with its harsh conditions and violent culture, the mentally ill can deteriorate, their symptoms worsening in ways Rikers is unequipped to handle. As they get sicker, they strike out at guards and other correction employees, often provoking more violence.
Judges, prosecutors, police officers and correction leaders, as well as elected officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio, have grown increasingly vocal about the damage that incarceration can do to these men and women. The Times spent 10 months examining Megginson's troubled life, conducting hours of interviews with him as well as his family members, doctors and lawyers. With his permission, the newspaper reviewed thousands of pages of medical, disciplinary and legal records from his time at Rikers and in hospitals, community programs and supervised housing. There may be a consensus that Megginson does not belong in jail, but there is no agreement about where else he could go. At times, he was just as violent in hospitals. He once jumped over a nurses' station in one hospital, attacking clinicians; in another one, he was placed in restraints 11 times.