NEW YORK - In the wake of criticism about the treatment of mentally ill inmates in New York City's jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday announced the creation of a task force that will devise strategies to help treat them both inside the criminal justice system and beyond its borders.
Corrections experts applauded the task force as an important first step in addressing the problem underscored in recent Associated Press reports on the deaths of two inmates -- one who an official said "basically baked to death" in an overheated cell and another who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.
"For far too long, our city's jails have acted as de facto mental health facilities. Everyone deserves access to quality medical and mental health care -- and addressing these needs within the criminal justice system will improve public safety for all New Yorkers," the mayor said in an emailed news release.
The task force of government and private sector experts will recommend and implement strategies to treat people with mental illness or substance abuse issues before and after they end up in the jail system. It will also develop better standards for transitioning inmates from jail back into the community and establishing treatment upon their release.
The panel will hold its first meeting on June 18 and present its action plan to the mayor in September.
Experts cautioned that treating the mentally ill in the criminal justice system is complicated by the many agencies involved, from the police to the district attorney's office. About 40 percent of the city's jail population has some form of mental illness.
The recent inmate deaths have raised new questions about the New York City jail system's ability to deal with a burgeoning number of mentally ill people. The two cases, both detailed by The Associated Press, have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule oversight hearings next month. De Blasio has vowed to reform the 12,000-inmate Rikers Island jail, amid criticism for months about violence and erratic behavior among inmates, mostly the mentally ill.
Joseph Ponte, who was appointed New York City's jail commissioner two months ago, told lawmakers at a budget hearing Monday department officials have already instituted some changes when dealing with the mentally ill -- such as having health staff and uniformed officers meet before every tour to talk about inmate behavior and adding an eight-hour basic mental health course at the correction officer training academy.
"Our top priority is to bring down violence, and we will do it by providing staff with the training and support they need to provide appropriate care, custody and control of our inmate populations, especially the mentally ill and adolescents," Pointe said.
One of the first things the task force should implement is a system of early identification that would quickly identify people who suffer from mental illness before they even get to jail, said Martin Horn, former commissioner of the city's department of corrections who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"The physical environment was designed to be a jail for healthy people. It wasn't designed to be a therapeutic environment," Horn said. "So it doesn't lend itself to the needs of the mentally ill."
Patient confidentiality for mentally ill inmates makes it difficult for providers to share important information. Even within the correctional system, officers may not have access to the prisoner's health status or history, Horn said.
Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center in New York, called the task force a good start.
"However, what counts is real policy change which leads to fewer people with mental illness entering the court system and jails and to those who do leaving with connections to treatment and support," Parish said.
Actually implementing recommendations will probably be the biggest challenge, said Jim Parsons, research director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group.
"It requires a cross-system solution that includes treatment in the various parts of the system," Parsons said. "This is an issue that's clearly facing New York, but it's a national issue."