The Federal Bureau of Prisons restored power at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where 1,600 inmates were in freezing, dark cells for nearly a week.
Inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail in Brooklyn, spent nearly a week in cramped cells that had no electricity and were frigid cold. Vents in the ceiling were stuffed with clothing or cardboard to keep out icy air. Those were the conditions described by elected officials who visited the jail on Saturday, where more than 1,600 inmates have been largely confined to their freezing, dark cells since an electrical fire partially cut off power to the jail, prompting management to cancel visits and place inmates on lockdown, reports the New York Times. “The situation is really, really a nightmare,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), whose district includes the jail. “It is like living in a closet without lights.” Electricity was restored Sunday night, but problems with the heating system, which are unrelated to the electrical failure, remain. While parts of the jail have heat, many cells do not, the Times said in a later report.
Before power returned, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), denounced what he called a “total lack of urgency and concern” by the warden, Herman Quay, and jail management. Inmates who needed electrical power for sleep apnea machines were at risk of a stroke, Nadler noted. During the week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said, inmates had hot water for showers and hot water in the sinks in the cell. Essential personal hygiene items and medical services were provided. Many family members said they had not heard from relatives for a week and were not given any information when they called the jail. They learned about what was happening through Twitter and news reports.
Last October’s well-publicized bailout of 105 New Yorkers who were awaiting trial is now history. But a volunteer who participated says it underlines why changing America’s pretrial detention system should be a high priority.
It was called an irresponsible experiment or even lunacy, but the “mass bailout” organized last fall in New York City by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights (RFKHR) can claim some success.
The month-long Mass Bail Out Movement (MBO) last October attracted widespread press attention, as well as 1,200 volunteers and about $2 million in funding support to underwrite early release for 64 adult women and 41 high-school-aged males from the city’s Rikers Island facility and other county jails.
About 1,200 volunteers participated in the Oct. 18 mass bailout event. Photos courtesy Revolve Impact.
There are no plans to do it again, in New York City at least, but the effort to awaken Americans to the need for rethinking pretrial detention, and more specifically bail, is only just beginning.
The event was “a single, time-limited, collaborative action,” said Sierra Ewert, a Program Director at RFKHR, adding it was intended to “call attention to the unjust and inhumane system of money bail, model alternatives to pre-trial incarceration, and increase the pressure to close Rikers and pass the structural reforms needed to end wealth-based detention and unjust pretrial incarceration.”
That may sound over-ambitious, but the organization plans to work with coalitions such as #FREEnewyork led by Just Leadership USA and the #CLOSErikers campaign, as well as share lessons learned with partners engaging in bail outs as a tactic.
Updated reports on those bailed out are still pending as their cases remain open.
But critics are wasting no time to judge the results of the MBO and downplay the significance of what actually happened. The New York Post called attention, for example, to the numbers of those bailed out who did not show up for their court dates.
These are the facts that observers tend to focus on. They are tangible, measurable, and a means through which the movement can be either praised or condemned.
But focusing on the individuals affected is the wrong way to look at what happened last year.
The target is the system itself—and the issue at the top of the agenda for all Americans is to reform how individuals awaiting trial are handled by our justice system—an effort which is now getting broad bipartisan support across the country.
I was one of the volunteers for MBO, and my experience underlines why this movement demands expansion.
I spent a morning at the Brooklyn House of Detention, a nondescript building in Brooklyn, N.Y., situated on Atlantic Avenue, one of the borough’s main streets. With its windows covered in black paint, the building sits across from a Michaels store, an outlet of a retail chain that sells yarn, beads and other accessories to hobbyists.
It makes for an ironic counterpoint, as if the first stop for those recently released will be to pick up yarn for their knitting project later that day.
I waited in the room where individuals wait for surety forms to be processed or for released inmates to receive their belongings. Uncomfortable and horribly lit, against one wall of the room there’s a wooden bench. Lining another one are three school-like plastic chairs, one of which has a black shoelace that has collected enough dust to suggest it had been there for some time.
The stride and demeanor of each person who walks into the room makes obvious which window is being visited.
The woman bailing someone out keeps her friend on speaker phone during the 45 minutes she waits for her bail to be processed. She clutches a white crinkled envelope, struggling to manage holding her phone, purse and Mountain Dew. A few hundred-dollar bills peek from inside the envelope. It seems like she’s done this before.
But few in the room are able to adopt the woman’s seemingly nonchalant attitude.
There’s a young man, for instance, who is growing increasingly frustrated as he waits. He has a job interview at 12:00 pm, and it’s already 11:00. He paces the small room as the woman behind the property pick-up window dispassionately tells him no, he cannot have his driver’s license back at this time.
The woman posting bail does not look up as he begins to raise his voice. She speaks louder into the phone so that her friend can hear her clearly. After some time he leaves with no ID and a cancelled job interview, exasperated and too frustrated to contest further.
A few minutes later she is called to slip her white envelope under the window and leaves too.
The room is quiet, apart from the sound of shuffled papers coming from the two women sitting behind their respective windows that stand less than six feet from each other. Sunlight streams through the window of the door and the warmth feels out of place.
A Symbol of Freedom and Imprisonment
This room is a symbol of freedom and imprisonment: a space where one can come to free their loved ones from the jail of poverty as well as the place where those same loved ones come to collect their belongings.
And long after the mass bailout movement has ended, the anomalous existence of this room keeps on.
New York City’s pretrial population averages about 7,500. Over half of this demographic is unable to afford bail.
The MBO was a reminder that poverty is criminalized in this country.
While the young man who was waiting for his papers may have received a temporary reprieve, he still missed his job interview—making his chances of escaping the poverty that was a factor in his brush with the law slim.
He missed what might have been his first and best chance at moving past his incarceration. And he missed it because, as the woman behind the window impatiently explained to him, he did not have the paperwork or parole officer’s permission to get his driver’s license back—as if a driver’s license is correlated to crime, as if the woman behind the window and the parole officer assigned to him had the right to withhold his identity.
Immediate freedom may be bought in this small room, but the residual consequences of being justice-involved remain bleak.
The MBO made clear that the status quo can be challenged. But it will take a lot more than one-time events to end the injustices visible in that room, and beyond that, to end a system of money bail and pretrial detention that harms everyone it touches.
Olivia Heffernan is a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where she studies human rights law and journalism. She also works part time at the Marshall Project and the Columbia Justice Lab. Visit her website at: livheffernan.com.
Butler County, Pa., jail authorities have set aside special cells, some of them padded, for inmates whose behavior renders them unfit for the general population. But they concede this doesn’t address the real needs of individuals who find scant help in the outside world.
As director of nursing at the health unit of Pennsylvania’s Butler County jail, Ashley Adams offers one of the few resources in the county for people suffering from disabling illnesses of the mind.
She remembers one young man who was an inmate of the prison from August to December.
“He didn’t belong here,” Adams said, explaining that he was originally a patient at Butler Memorial Hospital and suffered from a bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The hospital couldn’t offer him long-term care and when they demanded he leave, the young man refused, prompting hospital officials to call the police.
Adams said the man became so agitated by the time the police arrived that he hit the officers. He was eventually sentenced to a jail term for aggravated assault.
“We’re dealing with an underserved population,” Adams said. “They are just people too, but they need help; they need medical care.”
Ten years after Butler County Prison was built, officials continue to look for ways to deal with inmates suffering from mental health issues, a task that isn’t inherent to a system tasked with punishment, not therapy.
There are anywhere from 75 to 100 inmates—more than 30 percent of the jail’s population— who are on Ashley Adams’ health “radar.”
Adams, a health services administrator and registered nurse with the jail, said that these people could be suffering from a variety of conditions, from a mild anxiety disorder to a serious mental health diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
The problem is not specific to Butler, according to researchers and criminal justice experts. Nationally, mental illness affects men and women in jail at rates four to six times higher than in the general population.
“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help,” according to one study by the National Alliance for Mental Health.
“As a result, two million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.”
In Butler, if an inmate suffering from a mental health issue becomes disruptive or aggressive, the most immediate response is to put him or her in cells specially designed for high visibility so that inmates can’t hurt themselves, said Beau Sneddon, the jail’s deputy warden of operations.
“We have a lot of people here with mental health problems so that’s something we deal with regularly,” Sneddon said. “We’ve learned so much about what their needs are, and we’ve educated our corrections officers.
“Most importantly, they have the will to do it. It helps lower incidents.”
But this does little for an inmate’s long-term recovery. Once they are no longer causing trouble, Adams said they have little choice other than putting them back in the jail’s general population or keeping them in the special cells.
“These individuals often do not do well in the general population at the prison,” Adams wrote in an email, arguing that a special area for them be designated.
“Having this space would greatly improve our abilities to assist in rehabilitating them while they are incarcerated.”
She noted that with the jail’s inmate population currently at 259, there is enough space in a jail that has a capacity of more than 500 to create a dedicated space for people in the midst of a mental health crisis, something they do not have.
Instead, the health unit has 10 cells that provide high visibility of the jailed inmate allowing jail attendants to ensure they don’t harm themselves. There are also three padded cells for special cases.
“For humanitarian reasons we try to get them out of there as soon as possible,” she said, explaining that the padded cells aren’t outfitted for long-term use as they don’t have beds or a toilet.
“But it becomes a problem when we have to keep them in there for a long time.”
She continued, “My biggest goals for the mental health side of things would be an on-site provider as well as a greater capacity for housing inmates meeting mental health diagnosis criteria in a different setting than our medical infirmary.
At least 2 million people with mental illnesses are booked into facilities like the Butler County jail each year. Photo by Eric Jankiewicz.
More high-visibility cells would be great — as an intermediate step between general housing and a padded suicide- prevention type of cell.”
Currently, she said, if an inmate who has been in a padded cell for a long time isn’t ready to be put in a high visibility cell then they will try and send him o a medical facility.
“This is where we’ve hit roadblocks,” she said, explaining that inmates “are low priority since they have a limited number of psychiatric beds.”
A dedicated unit would remove a need for outside facilities.
Last year, jail officials floated the idea of creating a crisis intervention center by repurposing an area of the prison known as the pit, that currently has just a few cells and a row of chairs.
During a December meeting where Warden Joe DeMore mentioned the idea, the county’s commissioners appeared willing to consider such a move.
Jails No Solution for the Mentally Troubled
But Travis Parker, a senior criminal justice expert with Policy Research Inc., based in Lincoln, Neb., said that jails are not the ultimate solution in treating mental illness.
“Jail is not the place to get rehabilitation or services of any kind,” Parker said.
He suggested instead that local police departments maintain local crisis response teams that include officers who are trained to deal with people who are suffering some kind of mental breakdown.
Parker himself works part-time for a mobile crisis response team for law enforcement and jails in the 15 rural counties surrounding Lincoln, spending “a great deal of time” in counties not unlike Butler.
He also suggested a regional triage center devoted to dealing with people who would be better served by treatment instead of jailing.
“These units are intended to have law enforcement friendly policies where an officer drops somebody off and can leave the person at the center,” he said.
Jails, he said, should be used for people who “commit violent offenses, heinous crimes, and regardless of their mental health status they should be incarcerated.”
Currently, Adams noted that incoming inmates to Butler County Prison are assessed and, if needed, referred to Cindy McCrea for help.
McCrea works for Wexford Health Services, a third-party health care provider that specializes in jail health care.
But this treatment is limited since the jail doesn’t have an on-site psychiatrist, Adams said. Instead, the jail offers webcam sessions with off-site doctors who can order psychiatric medication if needed, Adams said.
Treatment Courts Provide Alternatives to Jail
Butler’s number of inmates is the lowest it has been in more than a decade. And in an attempt to reduce the number of jailed people suffering from mental health illnesses, Butler County’s legal structure offers three “specialty” courts that provide alternatives to jail.
One of the courts, Behavioral Health Court, is designed for people with varying diagnoses of mental illness. Instead of being jailed they are given treatment and tools for rehabilitation and readjustment.
But the program has its limitations. In total, 12 people have graduated from the Behavioral Health Court since 2015, when the program started.
At the end of February another two will graduate, according to Erin McGarrity, who works with Adult Probation and Parole and is a Behavioral Health Court officer.
Parker said that treatment courts can be helpful in preventing people from committing further crimes but they are limited by their ability to prevent people from turning to crime in the first place.
“I’m certainly a fan of treatment courts,” he said. “The idea of treatment court is it’s pretty intensive and graduates only a few people a year. Often times what we see is that a person will spend 24 months before they’re released of their charges.”
Getting into Behavioral Health Court, which started in 2015, requires a defendant to apply for it, much like a job application.
The process begins with a referral and then a court case manager with the specialty court will consult with McGarrity and the applicant to see if the defendant will be accepted. The requirements for Behavioral Health Court are numerous, including a willingness to accept the treatment.
McGarrity said she understands criticism of the specialty courts not being accepting enough.
“Sometimes, yes, the individual has a mental health illness issue, but the program is designed for those who have the highest risk, the highest need and the capability of being successful in the program,” McGarrity said.
And alternatively, “Sometimes people are too sick and too mentally ill to meet the expectations of the program,” McGarrity said.
Those who are accepted must plead guilty to a number of agreed upon charges. They are also put on a harsher plea deal that will be used if they fail out of the program. The District Attorney’s office must also agree to the deal.
“It’s much harsher,” McGarrity said about the plea deals they have to accept if they fail out.
“It’s usually a more serious sentence than if they just went the regular court route. So it’s usually a prison sentence.”
McGarrity noted that the other two courts, Drug Treatment and Veterans, deal with defendants suffering from mental health issues, too.
“Every single treatment court has participants in them that also have mental illnesses,” McGarrity said. “People who we take generally have a lengthy history with mental illness”
For Drug Treatment Court, which started in 2011, there are a total of 37 graduates. And in Veterans Court, which started in 2012, there are a total of 33 graduates.
Butler County criminal lawyer Dennis McCurdy said he likes the idea of the specialty courts but “my experience with the specialty court is a lot of rejection. The specialty court needs to take five to six times more people.”
“There needs to be a broader acceptance of candidates,” McCurdy said. “we’re filling the prisons with people who have mental health issues and that helps no one. We’ve turned cops into mental health first-responders and jails into last and final responses.”
Adams hopes that, ultimately, inmates with serious mental health problems have some place other to go other than jails, noting that she is part of a countywide committee involved in “Stepping Up,” a national organization devoted to reducing the number of mentally ill people being put in jail.
More than 425 counties, including Butler, have passed a resolution or proclamation to participate in the initiative, according to information provided by the organization.
Participation allows counties to gain support from public and private entities and the initiative builds on the many innovative and proven practices being implemented across the country.
“The challenge right now is having an appropriate place to divert them to — such as forensic beds in hospitals, psychiatric hospitals/treatment centers and long-term structured rehab type settings,” she wrote in an email.
Eric Jankiewicz, a former Crime Report news intern, is a staff writer for the Butler Eagle and a 2018 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of the second in an occasional series of articles on the county jail. The complete version is available here.
Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was arrested in 2010 and accused of stealing a backpack. He was detained for three years without being tried or convicted of a crime and in 2015, at age 22, he hanged himself at his parents’ home.
New York City has agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Kalief Browder, the young Bronx man whose detention on Rikers Island became a symbol of the breakdown in criminal justice in New York and fueled the drive to ban solitary confinement for youths in the city’s jails, The New York Times reports.
Browder, who was 16 years old when he was arrested in 2010 and accused of stealing a backpack, was detained on Rikers Island for three years — about two of which were spent in solitary confinement — without being tried or convicted of a crime. In 2015, at age 22, he hanged himself at his parents’ home in the Bronx.
About $6.675 million is likely for the estate of Terrill Thomas, the Milwaukee man who died of dehydration in the county jail after guards deprived him of water in 2016.
Some $6.675 million is expected to be paid to the estate of Terrill Thomas, the Milwaukee man who died of dehydration in the county jail after guards deprived him of water in 2016, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. The proposed settlement calls for the county to pay about $5 million and for Armor Correctional Health Services Inc. to pay between $1.5 million and $2 million. Armor is under contract to provide health services to the jail until March 31. The county settlement is more than double the $2.3 million the city of Milwaukee agreed in 2017 to pay the young son of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer. “It’s the heinousness” of Thomas’ death, one source said, explaining the size of the proposed Thomas settlement.
Thomas, 38, was arrested April 2016 in connection with the shooting of a man and later opening fire inside the Potawatomi Casino. His family believed he was having a psychotic episode. Jail screeners recommended placement in the special needs unit. Two days after his arrest, guards saw Thomas acting agitated and stuffing his shirt and pieces of mattress into his toilet so he could flood the cell. Instead of calling mental health providers, a lieutenant transferred him to the segregation unit, where he was put in an isolation cell that had bedding removed and its water turned off. “By April 23 he was too weak to yell or bang on his window. He was simply lying naked on his cell floor, barely able to move, severely dehydrated, literally dying of thirst,” said his estate’s lawsuit. “The change in Mr. Thomas’ condition was obvious to every jail employee who looked into his cell, including multiple defendants. However, not a single one bothered to call for help until it was too late to save Mr. Thomas’ life.”
The primary jail in Cleveland has been likened to a medieval dungeon. Experts urge conversion to a “direct supervision” model in which corrections officers are stationed along with inmates.
Descriptions of the Cuyahoga County, Oh., jail documented in a report by the U.S. Marshals Service conjure images of a medieval dungeon, infested with vermin and insects, where guards intimidate prisoners until they fear for their safety. Inmates are denied basic hygiene necessities and are held in crowded cells for days on end, often sleeping on mats on a cold floor. Cleveland.com asked experts what it would take to transform the deplorable jail into one of the nation’s best, one that not only keeps its inmates alive and safe, but sets them on a path toward a better life upon release. The website consulted with David Bogard of Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, LLC, Allen Beck of Justice Concepts Inc., and retired jail consultant Tom Allison. All have helped dozens of jails enhance security, reduce violence and recidivism and improve outcomes for inmates beyond their time behind bars.
“The most critical thing in working with inmates is giving them a light at the end of the tunnel — and it’s not a train,” Allison said. Experts agreed that the most effective, safest and least violent jails have one thing in common – they’ve embraced the “direct supervision” model to control inmate behavior. Direct supervision operates on the notion that safety and conduct improve for everyone in the jail when correctional officers are stationed within the common spaces inmates share. Previously, many “linear” jails had rows of cells with an officer patrolling a staff corridor and periodically peeking into cells to monitor behavior. In direct-supervision jails, officers spend their shift in the common space, or dayroom — mingling with inmates, establishing themselves as the authority while treating their charges with respect, and staying watchful for signs of brewing tension. The staffing ratio typically does not exceed one officer for 64 inmates.
An agency that inspects New York City’s jails found that two-thirds of 149 serious injuries never were recorded by the city’s Correction Department. The study also found that it took two hours to provide medical attention to seriously injured prisoners.
The New York City Correction Department underreports the number of inmates seriously injured in its jails and lockups and doesn’t even have a reliable way to count them, a new report says. Some 67 percent of 149 serious injuries audited were never recorded as any type of incident by the department, says a Board of Correction report published Monday, the New York Daily News reports. “DOC’s investigation process for injuries is plagued by delays, poor accountability, and incomplete reviews,” the report concluded. Serious injuries include cuts that require stitches, certain types of fractures and dislocations, post-concussion syndrome, and the “disabling” of an organ.
The Correction Department was also slow to respond to inmates seriously injured, investigators found. “On average, it took approximately two hours for seriously injured incarcerated people to receive medical attention after a DOC supervisor was notified of the injury,” the review says. The majority of serious injures involved cuts requiring sutures. All told, 53 percent were at least partially caused by an “inmate-on-inmate” fight.
There’s a big difference between the number of serious injuries reported by NYC Health + Hospitals’ Correctional Health Services workers and the number of incidents reported internally and publicly by the Correction Department. Health Services workers reported 816 seriously injured inmates in 2017, but the Department of Correction reported just 158. The Board of Correction, which monitors and inspects jails, recommended the Correction Department and Correctional Health Services immediately start to publish monthly detailed data on serious injuries. It also recommended the agencies come up with new protocols to make sure all cases are reported.
Etowah County, Al., Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who leaves office next month, pocketed $1.5 million of unspent food money allocated for federal inmates, reports Al.com.
Towering above the streets of Gadsden, Al., the Etowah County Detention Center is an outsized presence in the small town. The facility seems too big to house only the county’s thieves, drug dealers and other accused and convicted criminals. Indeed, the jail has a federal contract to incarcerate hundreds of undocumented immigrants who face lengthy legal battles over their immigration status and alleged crimes, reports Al.com. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin runs that jail and makes a lot of money doing it. He keeps money budgeted for jail food that goes unspent, saying he kept more than $750,000 from 2015 to 2017. Records show he had already pocketed more than twice that amount.
An AL.com review of records has revealed for the first time the extent to which Entrekin and the county’s general fund benefited from the federal immigrant-detention contract. Beginning in October 2011, the surplus from feeding federal inmates over the next three years was more than $3 million – half of which Entrekin pocketed and half of which went to the county’s general fund. When the federal contract was in jeopardy, Entrekin went to Washington, D.C., to lobby U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep it in place. Entrekin lost his bid for re-election this year and will step down as sheriff next month. He is the only Alabama sheriff whose jail houses hundreds of immigration detainees for the federal government. Lawyers and other experts say that he may have run afoul of a number of federal laws by receiving the immigration money.
After New York State began closing state mental health institutions, the jail population increased—adding a burden to already overcrowded facilities. But officials in Cortland County came up with an innovative strategy to address the problem.
On an average day, about 10 percent of the 90 individuals held in the tiny Cortland County Jail in upstate New York are suffering from mental illness.
That would be a significant number in any rural facility, but Cortland has only 57 designated beds to begin with─along with 30 additional slots in a former exercise space that has been converted into a dormitory.
So the presence of people who would be better handled in an institution rather than a jail adds an extra burden for prison authorities.
And the number of such individuals is “increasing,” says Cortland County Jail Capt. Nick Lynch.
Helping an individual with the right treatment instead of forcing him to languish in jail can make a huge difference—if the need is recognized in time.
Cortland County Undersheriff Budd Rigg tells the story of an out-of-towner who was arrested after breaking a window at a local supermarket. The man was under the influence of drugs, but during his initial screening, officials realized that substance abuse was a sign of something more serious.
“It became more and more evident, (there) was a serious mental health issue,” Rigg recalled.
Referrals were made to get help for the man. It got to the point where he had to be on constant watch, due to concerns that he might harm himself.
“We can’t force medication in jail like they can in an institution,” Rigg said. “So we finally got this individual to an institution through OMH (the state Office of Mental Health), and got him stabilized on medications.
“(When) he came back, he was a different person.”
Once back on his medication, the man was returned to jail until he went before a judge.
“The charges weren’t that severe; they realized it was mental health, psychosis,” Riggs said of the man, who worked for a military contractor. The individual paid restitution for the damage he caused, and was allowed to return home to North Carolina.
His mother called Riggs a month later, crying.
“(She thanked) us for …not just throwing him in a cell and locking him away, or sending him off to prison,” Rigg said.
The state has ordered the county to find a way to relieve jail overcrowding, but its ability to divert inmates with mental-health troubles to other facilities and programs is limited, and the number of mental-health facilities available is dropping.
New York State has closed several mental health facilities, effectively forcing many people with mental health to end up in jail when they have brushes with the law, said Bill Zipfel, superintendent of the Genesee County Jail in New York.
The state Department of Mental Health closed about nine centers in a three-year period.
In 2017, the state served about 139,000 people with mental health issues, a fraction of the estimated 865,000 mentally ill people, reports the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank.
The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued a long-term policy of trying to reduce mental-health facilities. Non-forensic state psychiatric centers lost 15 percent of their capacity since 2014, while their average daily census dropped 12 percent.
It’s an issue nationwide.
People with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the U.S. about two million times a year, according to the Stepping Up Initiative — a national effort to divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment.
Almost three-quarters of those inmates have drug and alcohol use problems.
“A lot of mental health is masked with self-medication, drug use,” Rigg said.
New York State Assembly Member Gary Finch (R-Springport), a member of the assembly corrections committee, said the state’s closure of mental health facilities amounted to “putting people on the street” with no resources for help. Then they end up in jail.
Instead of providing funding for new programs, Finch said, the state should invest in existing programs that can help people.
In the last five years, Cortland County’s female population in jail has gone up about 300 percent — the largest growing inmate population in the county and state. Many of the female inmates are victims of years of abuse, but their underlying problems are rarely recognized, said Riggs.
“It’s 100 percent a mental health issue,” Rigg said.
Abuse is not always the reason for mental illness among inmates, Rigg said, although it is the reason for most.
There are some who have had a mental health diagnosis all their life, went off their medication because they started feeling better — from the medication — and then did something they normally wouldn’t, like tax evasion, Rigg said.
“Some of them are truly only here because of the mental health and people just didn’t know what to do with them,” Rigg said. “They have done something, annoyed someone on Main Street, and ended up in jail.”
In the absence of state help, the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office has begun to be more pro-active, Rigg said.
Every individual entering the Cortland County Jail is screened for mental illness, Rigg said.
“One hundred percent of our staff are trained in lower-level mental health issues,” Rigg said. “Our staff is trained in screening and identifying any emergency needs.”
A correction officer watching a housing unit is able to identify behavior changes and knows when to intervene, Rigg said.
Unlike many jails, the county mental health authorities have paid for a forensic counselor on site, who is available 35 hours a week for one-on-one counseling.
“She meets with people regularly so we don’t get those flair ups like you see in other jails, and, knock on wood, that helps with our suicide attempts,” Rigg said.
“That one office, 35 hours a week, is worth its weight in gold.”
The lack of mental health centers does create a void, Rigg said. But Cortland County has a Mobile Crisis Team, which he said helps make sure those with a mental illness never make it to jail, or so police don’t have to get involved.
The team, formed at the beginning of the year, is a grant-funded program run by Liberty Resource of Syracuse, N.Y., which assists all law enforcement agencies in Cortland Count.y. There are teams in four other counties, too. Those on the team in Cortland Cortland all live in the county, and work for local agencies, such as the county Mental Health Department, Cortland Regional Medical Center, county Probation Department and others.
In the past three years, between the five counties, the Mobile Crisis Team has diverted 80 percent of the people it has helped from either going to the hospital or jail, said Theresa Humennyj, regional program director for Liberty Resource.
While sometimes police involvement may be necessary, Rigg acknowledged having an officer present, and potentially having to handcuff someone could escalate the situation.
That’s where the Mobile Crisis Team steps in.
“People get anxious or scared,” Humennyj said about how people act when there is a police presence. “It turns into he said-she said blaming, and a person might make bad choices.
“We try to come in so it doesn’t get to that point and they avoid jail.”
The teams divert between 2 percent and 3 percent of the jail’s population to other services, Rigg said.
“Our local community has done so much on the outside,” Rigg said. “So the more we address the issues in the community, the more it helps the jail.”
This is a condensed and edited version of the first part of a five-part series examining jails and mental illness. Nicholas Graziano, a staff writer at The Cortland Standard, is a 2018 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. The complete article and other parts of the series can be accessed here.
Long pretrial detentions are particularly prevalent in Mississippi because of impoverished inmates who can’t make bail, delays in appointing public defenders, slow processing of evidence and infrequent meetings of local courts.
A new survey provided to The Associated Press suggests that the number of Mississippi inmates jailed for short periods may be declining, but that those in jail for longer is holding steady. Criminal justice experts and state lawmakers say they need more data to help determine why so many people are in jail, what’s keeping them there, and what Mississippi should do about it. The survey by the MacArthur Justice Center shows almost half of the more than 5,000 people jailed stayed for 90 or more consecutive days. More than 600 had been in jail longer than a year, but that includes an unknown number of people serving sentences in jails and not just awaiting trial.
Long pretrial detentions are particularly prevalent in Mississippi because of impoverished inmates who can’t make bail, delays in appointing public defenders, slow processing of evidence and infrequent meetings of local courts because of the state’s rural nature. Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor who has led data collection, blames many extended detentions on judges who set bail that poor defendants can’t pay. MacArthur has repeatedly sued cities and counties in Mississippi for jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay bail or fines. He says prosecutors often drag their feet on indicting jailed suspects and said the state Supreme Court isn’t doing enough to guarantee speedy trials to defendants. “There is no limit in Mississippi on how long a person can be held prior to indictment, so detainees can wait up to a year or more before even being formally charged with a crime,” Johnson said. “They wait months after that for their trial date.” The most recent census conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, showed an average pretrial jail stay in Mississippi of 40 days, the sixth-longest in the country.