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In New York, Former Prisoners With Mental Illnesses Lack Needed Support

However, even that minimal treatment can be better than what many former prisoners receive upon their release. In New York, for example, you can search the streets and find men like S.D. (identified here with initials for privacy), age 47, suffering from schizophrenia and newly free after having spent time in New York prisons. The prison had S.D. grouped with similar men who have significant mental health problems. This group is housed in a specialized unit where medications are monitored and therapy provided as an additional service.

The state seems to act as if S.D.’s needs just ceased to be worthy of attention and care when it was time to be released. And S.D. is not alone. W.P. is a 50-year-old man who suffers from anti-social and schizoaffective disorders. Both men, as described in Samantha Michaels’ September 4, 2020, article in Mother Jones, evidence a system that seemingly believes that individuals who are mentally ill can just be pushed out on the streets with their meager possessions and little money and be expected to succeed. These former prisoners usually end up arrested and back in prison as their mental health conditions decline. Put on wait lists for shelters with far too little availability, the men are forced to wander the streets during the day waiting for the shelter to open again that night.

Prior to 2019, the State of New York Department of Corrections’ policy was to keep prisoners like S.D. and W.P. past their release dates to continue their care while awaiting subsidized support housing placement.

Thirty-three-year-old C.J, who has bipolar II disorder, was imprisoned 502 days beyond his term’s expiration. The policy was the department’s response to concerns that homeless shelters may not be safe for the mentally ill. But keeping any human being in prison past his or her lawful release date is not better than releasing the individual without support. The Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York advocacy groups agreed and sued the department on behalf of the men being held. The State argued that the men were in “residential treatment facilities,” not prisons. Attorneys disagreed, noting the environment was the same.

This suit prompted the department to issue a new policy. Prisoners with serious mental health issues would be sent to shelters while awaiting placement in supportive housing. By January 2020, New York had sent over 300 such former prisoners to shelters. But many become nervous, isolated, and paranoid, making many feel unsafe in the crowded shelters, unable to obtain medication, therapies, and other benefits they are eligible for and would receive in proper supportive housing. “I needed more medical attention, but they didn’t have it there, “ said W.P., adding, “I’m trying to avoid going back.… But by putting you in a shelter, isolating you, they’re making it worse.”

A Sing Sing prison doctor had recommended W.P. live in the supportive housing communities. These facilities have regular access to case workers and therapists, allowing for access to the very benefits and medical assistance needed. There just isn’t enough of this type of housing for the caseload.

“The failure to provide those services creates this revolving door where people get out of prison, end up in a homeless shelter, get significantly worse, and end up in an institution,” says Stefen Short, a Legal Aid attorney. “Once you have stable housing, you can go to your mental health appointments, the benefits office,” Elena Landriscina, an attorney with Disability Rights New York told Mother Jones, adding, “Without that first step of having a stable home that’s safe, everything else can’t follow.”

Over a year after his release, W.P. is still on the waiting list for supportive housing. S.P. is back in jail. After missing doses of medication, he got into a couple of fights at the hospital after telling staff there he felt depressed. What’s really depressing is that these men are trying as best as they can to stay free. The state just isn’t giving them sufficient resources and meaningful support to do so. 

 

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