Half of the inmates held in solitary confinement in New York City’s main jail complex on Rikers Island are mentally ill and some inmates spend thousands of days on end in the hole, according to a report from a watchdog group.
The study found at least six inmates spent more than 1,000 days in 22-hour isolation. One has spent almost 3,000 days in the Mental Health Assessment United for Infract Inmates, a housing unit where inmates are put in singe, suicide prevention cells, where they are handcuff to cinder block walls and given food served through a slot in the wall.
An assistant commissioner for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene once called such areas "parking lots for people with mental illness,” reported Aljazeera America.
“Since prolonged solitary confinement can cause symptoms of mental illness to appear even in previously healthy individuals, we strongly recommend against imposing it as a punishment for a predetermined duration even on those inmates not deemed to be mentally ill,” lead author Dr. James Gilligan, an NYU psychiatrist, told New York Daily News.
The 10-facility prison on a 400-acre island in the East River house 12,200 inmates, 40 percent of which are diagnosed with mental illness and a third of those suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
In the last six year, the study said, the number of solitary beds at Rikers has grown 61.8 percent, from 614 to 998 beds.
The inmate study, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, was conducted by the New York City Board of Correction, which is the watchdog over the city's Department of Correction (DOC). The Board of Correction recommends that the DOC work with teaching hospitals to provide intensive therapy to inmates.
The DOC reportedly has already taken steps to alleviate the issue, according to Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro .
The DOC is introducing non-solitary forms of punishment and opening two new dormitory-style units specifically for mentally ill inmates.
“It was (the Correction Department) who saw this striking growth in the percentage of mentally ill in the jails and we rang the bell,” Schriro told the Associated Press.
Gilligan said the growing population of mentally ill inmates isn’t just a problem in New York City, but in other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.