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Date: Thu, 5 Mar 2009 10:12:27 -0500
Subject: [NYAPRS Enews] Wachtler: Don't Delay Humanity Any Further

NYAPRS Note: Following last week’s news conference and legislative day by MHASC advocates to end solitary confinement for NYS prisoners with severe psychiatric disabilities, here’s another stirring OP Ed by the former chief Judge of our state’s highest court, Sol Wachtler. The Judge’s efforts were critical to helping advocates win passage of last year’s ‘SHU Law,’ which the Executive Budget is now proposing to limit and delay during this year’s legislative session. Both houses of the legislature are in action: Assembly leaders have offered a firm rejection of such proposals and the Senate is planning a March 17th Albany hearing.


Don't Delay Humanity Any Further

Effort To Push Off New Bill To Prevent Solitary Confinement Of Mentally Ill In Prison Is Unconscionable


BY SOL WACHTLER   Newsday OP Ed  March 5, 2009
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, teaches constitutional law at Touro Law School and is the author of "After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir."After an enormous effort by individuals and organizations, last year the New York State Legislature passed, and then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed into law, the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) bill, which provides that seriously mentally ill inmates cannot be placed in solitary confinement.

It took a law suit, the weathering of a veto by former Gov. George Pataki, and the commitment of dozens of individuals and organizations over a period of many years to have the legislature, with almost unanimity, provide more appropriate and humane in-prison residential and treatment services for these seriously mentally ill prisoners. The SHU (pronounced "shoe") bill also ensured that correctional officers would be provided with adequate mental health training.

Although the law is not scheduled to take effect until 2011, Gov. David Paterson has proposed in this year's executive budget to diminish and delay the protections afforded by the SHU legislation, putting off implementation of the law until 2014. Accompanying legislation also calls for the elimination of about half of the correctional beds from the requirements of the SHU law, and cuts the training requirements for correctional officers.

The bill was already a carefully constructed compromise, and it will have no fiscal impact on this year's budget. So the administration's effort to significantly alter and scale back its scope, by way of the budget process, is not only inexplicable, it is shameful. The governor is simply and arbitrarily walking away from the state's commitment to provide humane treatment to those with psychiatric disabilities who are most vulnerable.

Locking up seriously mentally ill people in solitary, claustrophobic 8-foot by 10-foot (or even smaller) cells for 23 hours a day - with only one hour in an outdoor, zoo-like cage - isolated and idle, only exacerbates their symptoms and leads to greater mental dysfunction.

I have seen and been with mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement. They are mostly untreated or under-treated and as a consequence of neglect, they deteriorate. Their behavior becomes unpredictable - they may react violently to the goading of other inmates, or they may rant or engage in incoherent babble. This infuriates their guards. They may not respond to direction and, instead, cower silently. They may respond to voices only they can hear, or talk to invisible people in a world constructed from their own hallucinations. They may self-mutilate and riddle their bodies with scars. Many try suicide.

This acting out, this aberrational behavior, constitutes infractions that are punished by their keepers - most often by continuous and protracted interment in the SHU.

This explains why a disproportionate number of the 8,000 seriously mentally ill in our New York State prisons end up serving an average of three years in the SHU. The closing of mental hospitals has resulted in a dramatic increase of prisoners diagnosed with serious mental illness. Placing these persons in the SHU is uncivilized - and considering that most of these inmates will be back in our communities far more disabled by their confinement, it is also dangerous.

When the linear thinking of a seriously mentally ill inmate in the SHU does not allow him to understand that his misbehavior is the reason for his punishment, he continues to act out. To further punish him, he is fed the loaf - a brick-like mixture of vegetables and flour served with a dish of raw cabbage and water. As a spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services once told The New York Times, the loaf is given when "there's nothing left to take away."

Bread and cabbage given for punishment has been condemned by the American Correctional Association, and was eliminated from the federal prisons and most states - but not in New York. In fact, during the Pataki years, use of the loaf diet was increased by 100 percent, and too many of those put on the diet were seriously mentally ill. It wasn't until passage of the SHU bill that any kind of outright ban on the use of the loaf for people with a psychiatric disability was enacted.

The protections of the bill should not be further stalled. It is unconscionable for Gov. Paterson, based on a nonexistent budgetary pretext, to postpone the implementation of this law for an additional three years.

It is now up to the legislature to allow the bill to go into effect as scheduled in 2011 - that's three years after it was signed into law. It will cost nothing this year to do it, and the cost over the next couple of years is probably far less than the sum of all the SHU and mental health-related prison lawsuits and settlements the state has been compelled to pay out in recent years. And the return, in terms of basic humanity to New York State, is incalculable.,0,2536302.story

 "War destroys. And we must cry out for peace.
Peace sometimes gives the idea of stillness, but it is never stillness.
It is always an active peace.
I think that everyone must be committed in the matter of peace,
to do everything that they can,
what I can do from here.
Peace is the language we must speak."
Pope Francis



                                            ~Pope FRANCIS