The New York Times has just published a horrifying article about the abuse of mentally ill prisoners at Rikers Island jail. Rikers has as many people with mental illness (4,000 out of 11,000 inmates) as the 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York combined. Rates of mentally ill prisoners have doubled in the past 8 years. Clearly this is significant policy issue - and one that has no easy solutions. There can, and will likely, be reform at the sentencing level - perhaps prisons and jails aren't the right places for many of these people? But such reformers still need to pay attention to the problem at hand, which is that there are thousands of mentally ill prisoners in the US and we haven't really figured out a way to care for them in a jail setting. The Rikers report has some gruesome details: one inmate attempted to commit suicide, was found by several corrections offers who, upon discovering him, beat him so badly he needed emergency surgery to repair a perforated bowel. I'm not sure how to care for the mentally ill prison population, I'm not sure if anyone does at this point. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that whatever is going on at Rikers is the wrong way.
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.