de Blasio announces mental health reforms at Rikers Island without addressing social impact of hospital closings

By LOUIS FLORES

Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) announced reforms to Rikers Island at a news conference Thursday with Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, at his side.

"Let's face it, for many years, Rikers Island has been a dehumanising environment, an environment unfair to the people, who work there, unfair to the inmates -- and created a dynamic of conflict and violence that became pervasive," Mayor de Blasio said.

New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, left, reads from his statement at a media roundtable Thursday with Mayor Bill de Blasio at his side.  Source :  NYC Mayor's Office/YouTube Screen Shot

New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, left, reads from his statement at a media roundtable Thursday with Mayor Bill de Blasio at his side.  Source :  NYC Mayor's Office/YouTube Screen Shot

The de Blasio administration has come under fire after separate, but, at times, complimentary, investigations by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district and by journalists at each of The New York TimesThe New York Daily News, and the Associated Press, that each showed a disturbing culture at Rikers Island that disregarded both the constitutional rights of inmates and the safety of correctional officers and inmates.  Whereas the focus of the U.S. Attorney's investigation focused on the violence on teenage inmates, press reports have also looked at conditions faced by people with mental health needs.

Upon the release last August of the U.S. Attorney's report, the top federal prosecutor for that office, Preet Bharara, said in a statement, in part, “As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution.  It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort ; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries ; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare ; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails." 

At Thursday's press conference, the mayor made efforts to soften the political implications to his administration caused by the federal investigation.  "In the past, so many inmates ended their time at Rikers more broken than when they came in, serving no one -- an unfair dynamic that served no one.  Certainly, it didn't serve the interests of the people of this city," Mayor de Blasio said, adding that, "The notion of rehabilitation and preventing repeat offenders got lost along the way."

One of the reforms announced Thursday by Mayor de Blasio was the allocation of $32.5 million to fund mental health and anti-violence efforts.  The mayor cited as a cause of challenges at Rikers Island the large number of severely, mentally-ill inmates, who created problems that needed to be "dealt with at their root."

However, public health advocates fault the state and city for allowing the closure of so many hospitals that used to treat people with mental health needs in a healthcare facility instead of allowing people with mental health needs get swept up in the city's dragnet of over-policing that then jails people with mental health needs at Rikers Island.  

We stand ready to take legal action to compel long-overdue reforms at Rikers, if that becomes necessary to get the job done.
— U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara

A request was made to City Hall for comment about how the de Blasio administration plans to get to the root of the challenges created by the large population of people with mental health needs at Rikers Island without addressing the need for greater public mental healthcare resources that could prevent the jailing of people with mental health needs.

According to statistics reported in an investigation published last July by The New York Times, "Rikers now has about as many people with mental illnesses — roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates — as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago."

Amongst the many hospitals that have recently closed in New York City are Holliwood Hospital in Jamaica, Queens, which closed last year, eliminating 125 beds where people with mental health needs could receive treatment, as opposed to being jailed in Rikers Island for behaviour that could possibly be attributed at its root to their mental health needs.  St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan, a charity hospital for many of the city's poor and uninsured, has also closed.  A full-service, Level I Trauma Center, St. Vincent's used to treat people with addictions and with mental health needs, including often providing healthcare to the homeless.

There is a national shortage of public hospital beds for people with mental health needs, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Virginia.  In New York state alone, the ratio of public hospital beds for people with psychiatric needs relative to the overall population fell from 600 beds per 100,000 people in 1955 to 28 beds per 100,000 people in 2004/2005.  The report recommended that New York state would need to add over 4,300 hospital beds dedicated to people with psychiatric needs in order to meet minimum standards of care.

Under former Gov. George Pataki (R-New York), the state began to make a series of hospital closings overseen by a Wall Street investment banker, Stephen Berger, in a neoconservative effort to make radical cuts to healthcare to hold steady or roll back tax rates for the wealthy, a worldview that has continued into the neoliberal administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York).  

When the Cuomo administration was advocating the closure of Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital in Brooklyn, the announcement was met by protestations of mental health advocacy groups for the cruel, short-sightedness of Albany officials.  Gov. Cuomo was criticised for saying that people with mental health needs would find treatment elsewhere.  As the government has funded fewer mental health hospitals, people with mental health needs have no where else to go, invariably coming to the attention of law enforcement for behaviour that is a consequence of a lack of medical treatment.  Police automatically take into custody anybody, who police see as a danger to society.  

Rather than treating people with mental health needs in a healthcare facility, the United States is choosing to let people with mental health needs end up in jails and prisons, overwhelming law enforcement, according to findings of a study.  At Rikers Island, people with mental health needs are "preyed upon by correction officers and other inmates," according to one of the investigations published by The New York Times.  For years, the cable news channel NY1 has reported about the increasing population of people with mental health needs at Rikers Island, and viewer feedback to the news program NY1 The Call has supported the idea of people with mental health needs receiving treatment in a hospital facility instead of a jail facility.

Mayor de Blasio has himself come under fire for the closure of Long Island College Hospital having taken place on his watch.  Since 2006, thirteen full-service hospitals in New York City have either closed or have been downsized into urgent care centers.

Other reforms announced by Mayor de Blasio on Thursday included a new detention center for transgender women, the installation of more security cameras, and pledging to end the use of solitary confinement for inmates aged 16 and 17.  However, the U.S. Attorney's Office made other recommendations, such as placing adolescent inmates in a detention facility not physically located on Rikers Island, that the mayor has yet to pledge to honour.  In an unrelated announcement that will not answer the U.S. Attorney's Office's recommendation of a separate detention facility for Rikers Island juvenile inmates, New York City may open a limited security facility for teenage inmates in Queens to comply with a state program that calls for relocating some juveniles from upstate facilities to downstate facilities, so that the inmates could be "closer to home." 

At Thursday's news conference, Mayor de Blasio said that his administration is committed to making the necessary changes at Rikers Island, affirming that he had faith in Commissioner Ponte to effect the needed reforms.  Commissioner Ponte announced that some results were already being achieved at Rikers, including the demonstration of declines in adolescent use of force, assaults on staff, inmate fights resulting in serious injuries, and serious injuries to inmates, as some examples.

Mayor de Blasio further said on Thursday that Commissioner Ponte had replaced over 90% of the senior leaders at Rikers Island.  Improvements in staff and accountability at Rikers Island were amongst the ten recommendations that U.S. Attorney Bharara made last August.  However, when The New York Daily News reported last September that some jail officials had received promotions, even though they had ties to the unconstitutional and violent conditions cited in the U.S. Attorney's Office's investigation of Rikers Island, U.S. Attorney Bharara threatened to sue the city in court, if the city did not begin implementing reforms.  

"As the relevant City authorities are well aware, while we are listening to their promises to take various steps, we have an independent responsibility to ensure that the Constitution is respected and upheld everywhere, including on Rikers Island, and part of that duty is to guarantee that needed reforms are lasting, verifiable, and enforceable," said U.S. Attorney Bharara, in a statement, in part, adding that, "… we stand ready to take legal action to compel long-overdue reforms at Rikers, if that becomes necessary to get the job done."

As if to avoid the embarrassment of another federal court-driven effort to supervise the city's law enforcement, Mayor de Blasio said at Thursday's news conference that his administration is working to implement long-term reforms at Rikers Island, saying that, "… we won't stop, until the change is not only achieved, but is deep-seeded."

Notwithstanding assertions by Mayor de Blasio to get to the root of problems at Rikers Island, Mayor de Blasio continues a non-stop campaign of arresting groups of youths for very minor, low-level infractions, including for playing music or dancing in the city's subway system, burdening the Department of Corrections with an endless population of juveniles that need to be incarcerated even as the unconstitutional conditions of juvenile facilities at Rikers Island are on the verge of triggering a lawsuit by federal authorities. 

Last year, a federal lawsuit found that the New York Police Department was violating the constitutional rights of citizens as a result of its "stop and frisk" policing tactic, triggering a court ruling that, amongst other remedies, ordered the appointment of a federal monitor, Peter Zimroth, to oversee reforms of the "stop and frisk" tactic.  The NYPD is also subject to an inspector general, Philip Eure, to comply with local police reform laws passed last year by the New York City Council.

Mayor de Blasio campaigned for mayor last year on a central campaign promise to reform law enforcement, but liberal activists to the mayor's political left have become exasperated by the de Blasio administration's slow delivery of reforms, leading to frustrations that have embarrassed the mayor as he seeks to fluff his own national political credentials.  Subjecting more of the city's law enforcement to even more court-ordered scrutiny, as U.S. Attorney Bharara has promised, would seriously undercut the mayor's credibility of being a progressive reformer.  

As it stands, police reform activists continue to call for each of an end the NYPD's controversial "Broken Windows" theory of policing that critics charge intentionally targets people of color and low-income communities, the resignation of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, and the empaneling of a new commission to investigate NYPD corruption, including at its Internal Affairs Bureau