NEW YORK (AP) — New York City lawmakers peppered correction and health officials with questions about how to reduce violence and better care for a growing mentally ill inmate population in the nation's second-largest jail system during a specially called oversight hearing Thursday.
In three hours of testimony, the commissioners for the departments of correction and health and mental hygiene detailed both the bureaucratic inner-workings of how their two agencies, tasked respectively with both the custody and health care of roughly 11,000 daily inmates, interact now — and what they can do better to reform a jail system advocates, lawmakers and even the department of correction commissioner himself have called troubled.
"These long-term trends, years in the making, are clearly unacceptable, and reversing them is my top priority," Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who started running the $1 billion agency in April, said of the violence. "But as a correction professional with 40 years' experience, I must assure you that the process will not be quick. And it will not be easy."
Their testimony comes following reports by The Associated Press detailing two grisly deaths of inmates with psychological problems on Rikers Island. DOC statistics show that between 2010 and 2013, use-of-force incidents have increased by 59 percent, from 1,871 to 2,977; slashing and stabbing incidents doubled, from 34 to 58; and assaults on staff jumped by 30 percent, from 500 to 646.
At the same time, the number of inmates with a mental health diagnoses has soared as the jail population has declined, accounting for about 24 percent of the nearly 14,000 inmates in 2007 to about 40 percent of mentally ill inmates today, according to the statistics. Officials estimate that about a third of those inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week appointed a task force charged with rethinking how the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill. Lawmakers argued Thursday the challenges facing reform at Rikers are vast, and include not just safety and mental health measures, but also new facilities, more security staff and bail reform.
Mary Bassett, the department of health and mental hygiene's commissioner, told lawmakers that mental health and violence in the jails are intertwined. She said correction officers and mental health workers have already begun to discuss certain inmates' behavior at the end of every tour, being mindful of medical privacy laws, so as to better recognize potential problems before it's too late.
Officials have started to reform 19 so-called mental observation units, where the recent deaths of two inmates with psychological problems occurred, she said. Those deaths, reported by The Associated Press, called for top-down change, said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.
The AP was first to report on suspicions of a mentally ill former Marine's February death inside a 101-degree cell. A city official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the AP then that Jerome Murdough "basically baked to death." His family, who said the veteran suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit.
Last month, the AP detailed the September 2013 death of 39-year-old inmate Bradley Ballard, whose family said was diagnosed with schizophrenia who died after sexually mutilating himself while locked up alone for seven days. His death was recently ruled a homicide.
Prosecutors are investigating both deaths. New York University psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan, who authored a report last year that was critical of the department's then approach to using solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates, said Thursday the hearing was an encouraging sign that the city was taking the issue seriously.
"I think this is a move toward greater transparency in what's going on at Rikers Island both with the problems and with the reforms," he said.