Preserving Consumer's Rights Behind Bars
By Susan Goodwillie, LMSW, Social Worker, Urban Justice Center
The Mental Health Project: A Service of the Urban Justice Center
It is well known that the stigmatization of mental illness results in policies that seek to punish rather than treat individuals with psychiatric conditions. For low-income New Yorkers living with mental illness, in particular, this means being subjected daily to discrimination by landlords, employers and law enforcement officials. The criminalization of mental illness, and an overwhelming lack of community supports, have contributed to the era of mass incarceration, where jails and prisons have become the largest “mental health care providers” in the United States. Far too many people are incarcerated for symptoms that need to be properly treated, not punished.
The Mental Health Project (MHP) of the Urban Justice Center provides free civil legal and advocacy services to lower income New Yorkers living with mental illness, and fights to preserve the rights of those who become involved with the criminal justice system. While MHP provides an array of civil legal services, we put a heavy emphasis on our criminal justice advocacy. MHP advocates for discharge planning rights for people coming out of jails and prisons, provides reentry connections, and contributes to several coalitions focused on the conditions of jails and prisons for people with mental illness.
With the support of co-council Debevoise & Plimpton and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, MHP won a victory in the Brad. H vs. City of New York settlement, which requires the Department of Corrections to provide comprehensive discharge planning to individuals living with mental illness who are returning to the community from Rikers Island. MHP has provided independent oversight to ensure the city’s compliance with the settlement by making weekly visits to Rikers Island and speaking with individuals about the kinds of services they’re being offered.
The Mental Health Project was a founding partner in Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC), a statewide coalition concerned about the impact of solitary confinement on people in state prisons. Largely in part to MHASC’s efforts since 2003, New York State passed the SHU (“special” housing unit or solitary confinement) Exclusion Law in 2008. Finally enacted in 2011, the SHU Exclusion Law prohibits individuals classified as having a serious mental illness from being placed in solitary confinement.
In order to build on the progress made by the SHU Exclusion Law, MHP helped form another coalition called the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC). Currently, CAIC is advocating for NYS representatives in Albany to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. HALT would vastly limit the types of infractions that would result in an individual being placed in solitary confinement, as well as the length of sentences in solitary. HALT would also prohibit vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary confinement for any amount of time and would provide more transparency and oversight of the use of solitary confinement.
MHP is excited to offer more frequent advocacy courses to assist individuals returning to the community from jail or prison in navigating the multiple systems they might interact with, so that they may obtain or acquire the knowledge and skill base necessary to best advocate for their rights. The course introduces speakers from different organizations to discuss a range of issues, including employment, housing, and public benefits. We also hope that these courses will assist people who have had some involvement in the criminal justice systems to connect to peer supports such as clubhouses and peer advocacy training programs. MHP also provides individual case management services to individuals living with mental illness who are returning to the community from jail and prison. We assist individuals to apply for supportive housing and SSI/SSD benefits, connect people with mental health treatment and additional resources such as peer services and other employment and educational opportunities.
For more information about MHP’s services, please contact our intake coordinator, Kaitlin Hansen at (646) 602-5658. For more information about MHP’s Reentry workshops or our Advanced Advocacy Course, please contact our Advocacy Workshop Coordinator, Koretta McClendon at (646) 602-5661.