Disciplinary confinement and treatment of prison inmates with serious mental illness.
PURPOSE: To gather information about current conditions of disciplinary confinement in the state prison system and suggestions for the improvement of the conditions of confinement and treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness in an effort to make New York State's prisons safer for staff and inmates.


October 7, 2003
11:00 AM
Monroe County Office Building
39 Main Street
Legislative Chambers, Room 406

In New York State, approximately 8,000 inmates (12 percent of the state's prison population) have been identified by the State Office of Mental Health (OMH) as suffering from serious and persistent mental illness. Mental illness reduces the likelihood that inmates will conform to the rules of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). Prisoners who violate DOCS rules are often placed in disciplinary confinement, alone or double-celled with another inmate, in a prison's Special Housing Unit (SHU) where confinement may range from a period of days to terms which last for many years. Research demonstrates that the lack of adequate mental health treatment increases the likelihood that inmates with mental illness will violate prison rules, endanger themselves, other inmates and prison staff and serve time in an SHU.

According to DOCS, nearly one quarter of the more than 4,000 prisoners confined in SHUs suffer from serious mental illness. Inmates suffering from psychiatric deterioration while in SHUs may become so mentally ill that they engage in further misconduct, leading to imposition of additional SHU confinement. In addition, studies have shown that when this population is disciplined using solitary confinement, inmates engage in acts of self-mutilation and commit suicide at a rate three times higher than inmates in the general prison population.

According to advocates for prisoners with mental illness, hundreds of seriously mentally ill inmates have been confined for years in the isolation of disciplinary housing where mental health care is minimal. In addition, mental health experts have documented that the isolation of prisoners with mental illness can cause serious psychiatric deterioration, including paranoia, delusions, self-injury and suicide. The American Psychiatric Association has explicitly cautioned against the use of isolated confinement for inmates with schizophrenia. The American Association of Community Psychiatrists has publicly stated that isolation and enforced idleness leads to further deterioration and mental illness, and cautions against use of isolation cells for such prisoners.

During the 2003-2004 Legislative Session, Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry introduced legislation (A.8849), co-sponsored by Assemblyman Peter Rivera, which would require DOCS to develop effective alternative confinement facilities for inmates with mental illness who would otherwise be subject to SHU confinement. The bill's sponsors believe that the benefits of this legislation would be several. First, the sponsors believe this legislation would make our prisons safer for staff and inmates and easier to manage. Second, the bill would help ensure lower rates of recidivism and relapse when inmates are released from prison thereby enhancing public safety. Finally, passage of this legislation would allow New York to join the ranks of other states that recognize the counterproductive nature of certain forms of punishment for inmates with serious mental illness.

Persons wishing to present pertinent testimony to the Committees at the above hearing should complete and return the enclosed reply form as soon as possible. It is important that the reply form be fully completed and returned so that persons may be notified in the event of emergency postponement or cancellation.

Oral testimony will be limited to 10 minutes' duration. In preparing the order of witnesses, the Committees will attempt to accommodate individual requests to speak at particular times in view of special circumstances. These requests should be made on the attached reply form or communicated to Committee staff as early as possible.

Ten copies of any prepared testimony should be submitted at the hearing registration desk. The Committees would appreciate advance receipt of prepared statements.

In order to meet the needs of those who may have a disability, the Assembly, in accordance with its policy of non-discrimination on the basis of disability, as well as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has made its facilities and services available to all individuals with disabilities. For individuals with disabilities, accommodations will be provided, upon reasonable request, to afford such individuals access and admission to Assembly facilities and activities.

Jeffrion L. Aubry
Member of Assembly
Chair, Committee on Correction

Peter M. Rivera
Member of Assembly
Chair, Committee on Mental Health,
Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities


  1. What are the current conditions and duration of confinement in SHUs for inmates with serious mental illness?
  2. What methods of mental health treatment are used by DOCS in treating inmates with serious mental illnesses? What recommendations for improving mental health treatment of this population should be considered?
  3. What are the current policies and practices for SHU confinement of inmates with serious mental illness?
  4. What programs, services and disciplinary measures employed in other state prison systems for inmates with serious mental illness are worthy of consideration by DOCS?
  5. What are the effects of long-term SHU confinement on inmates with serious mental illness?
  6. Should A.8849 be enacted in its current form or with amendments? What changes to the bill, if any, would improve its effectiveness?


Persons wishing to present testimony at this public hearing are requested to complete this reply form as soon as possible and mail it to:

Richard McDonald
Legislative Associate
Assembly Committee on Correction
Room 513 Capitol
Albany, New York 12248
(518) 455-4313
Fax: (518) 455-4128

box I plan to attend the public hearing to be conducted by the Assembly Committee on Correction on October 7, 2003.

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