Senators Montgomery, Duane Blast Pataki For Inhumane Punishment Of Mentally Ill Inmates

Velmanette Montgomery

August 16, 2006

State Senators Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) and Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan) blasted Governor George Pataki today for vetoing a measure to end the practice of punishing seriously mentally ill prisoners by throwing them into solitary confinement for up to 23 hours every day.

"Besides being inhumane, placing a mentally ill inmate in solitary confinement makes a bad situation worse," Senator Montgomery said. "It creates prisoners who are more disruptive, more disturbed and more likely to hurt themselves or others."

Senator Duane said mentally disturbed prisoners "usually deteriorate rapidly and sometimes mutilate themselves or take their own lives when placed in solitary confinement." He cited a study by the Correctional Association of New York State which indicated 53 percent of inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement attempted suicide, while 40 percent committed acts of self-mutilation.

The two Senators, who co-chair the Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, criticized Pataki for ignoring the overwhelming support the bill received. The measure passed the Senate 61-0 and the Assembly by a 133-6 vote. Mental health advocates and correction officers associations also supported the measure.

Montgomery noted that a growing number of states, including Florida and Texas, have stopped placing mentally disturbed prisoners in solitary confinement. Some states have been successfully sued and forced to end the practice. "I was hoping it wouldn't take a lawsuit to end this inhumane practice in New York," Montgomery said. "I expected the Governor to end this practice. It is a tragedy that he has not."

Mentally ill prisoners who survive solitary confinement also cost the State more money, because they often experience a cycle of mental deterioration requiring costly in-patient care in a psychiatric hospital.

The measure vetoed by the Governor would have provided corrections officers with the training they need to better handle mentally disturbed prisoners. It would have also helped mentally ill prisoners receive proper treatment and medication, and given mental health professionals greater influence in deciding treatment options.

"Without the treatment or the medication they need to control their illnesses, mentally ill inmates – when released from prison -- will often present a danger to the community and end up reincarcerated," Duane said.

It is estimated that 8,000 inmates – about 12 percent of the State's prison population – are seriously mentally ill. Shockingly, however, mentally ill inmates make up 23 percent of the prisoners in solitary confinement.