COBA's Position on Mental Illness Mental Health

In the past few years it has come clear that the largest challenge in the NYC DOC system is the issue of inmates who have mental health designations, and especially those who are seriously mentally ill. Correction Officers are manifestly ill equipped to deal with these populations. However they are blamed for the failings that should start and end with the negligence of the clinicians who are charged with providing mental health services. Nothing has changed in the training of Correction Officers for decades, and yet they are losing their jobs and are even criminally prosecuted for matters outside of their experience. The population they are to care for has radically altered and yet their “essential functions[1]” have not kept up with the training they need to avoid being fired for the failures of their “partners” in this enterprise – medical health professionls.  

COBA has long pointed out that the closing of psychiatric facilities to care for the mentally ill has led these populations into the criminal justice system where few, if any, belong. In fact, a recent Independent Budget Office report states that there are as many inmates with mental health designations than there are beds in every psychiatric facility in the five boroughs[2].

The Department of Correction has become a “dumping ground” for those that society chooses to care for less and less. Testimony to this effect was given recently by Norman Seabrook before the New York City Board of Correction on December 19, 2014, and the City Council on June 6, 2014. What the mentally ill need, if they are to be in the criminal justice system at all, is appropriate housing[3] and corrections professionals who are properly trained, working in hand with medical staff.

This problem could not ring truer than with the tragedy that was the life and death of former Marine Jerome Murdough. A homeless veteran seeking a warm place to sleep was given a bail he could not have met – or he would have had a hotel room – and then placed on a cocktail of drugs that were a catalyst in his death when a heating system malfunctioned. This is the sort of “perfect storm” no Correction Officer can avert or anticipate, let alone cure without a commitment by those outside of the Department to reforming the criminal justice system. 

The legacy of the former Bloomberg administration is harsh, and Correction Officers are the first to pay the price. No additional money or resources were allocated to the Department in years past or even asked for in March 2014 for training Correction Officers to deal with mentally ill inmates.  

The attention from the Attorney General of the United States in a five-year study[4] made clear that the way the Department is training Correction Officers concerning this population is inadequate. The DOJ’s report issued in mid-2014 made pages upon pages of recommendations, most of which are beyond the ken of the rank and file. 

Correction Officers only know that they do not have what they need to do the job. The politics are beyond them and the money issues rest wholly within the managerial prerogative of the DOC and the purse of the City of New York. However Correction Officers are professionals - law enforcement officers - and ironically thanks to this increased scrutiny by Department of Justice, the rank and file will get a break with. Inevitably, a long ignored and broken system will see an influx resources to train these professionals to engage with this increasingly large mentally ill and challenging population[5]. For an additional insight on the mental health training afforded Correction Officers, see pages 18-19 of the April edition of COBA Magazine http://crossmediaplus.com/flipbooks/april2014/

COBA strongly supports the 32+ hour training models being implemented in Pennsylvania, and supported by jail reformers. Recently Norman Seabrook made this clear in his testimony to the Board of Corrections. Officers need 40 hours of training- not 8 hours given to them by those who themselves only had 8 hours of training. Officers need certification by instructors who can provide relevant training[6].

A discussion of such Crisis Intervention Training will be the subject of further discussion in this website at a future date.

[1] http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/downloads/pdf/noes/201303301000.pdf

[2] http://ibo.nyc.ny.us/cgi-park2/?p=737

[3] 1Hour, 3 minutes and 40 seconds at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLGM4Qb_Zc8&feature=youtu.be

[4] http://www.justice.gov/usao/nys/

[5] See Page 4 of COBA April 2014 Magazine, which preceded the DOJ Report and the Mayor’s announcement to provide more resources to train Corrections Officers.  http://crossmediaplus.com/flipbooks/april2014/

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLGM4Qb_Zc8 50:00 – 50:35; 1:05 – 1:05.35