Policy Gone Awry Leaves Mentally Ill Behind Bars, Suit Says

By Emma Cueto | January 27, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

In New York state, a seemingly well-intentioned program to help people with serious mental health disorders or who are at risk of becoming homeless as they transition from prison is backfiring spectacularly in some cases and denying inmates their freedom, according to a new lawsuit.

Under the program, such individuals are often required to go into state-funded community housing programs after being released from prison. But in a suit filed Wednesday, lawyers from The Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York alleged that when there isn't space available in existing community housing programs, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision simply keeps mentally ill New Yorkers in prison, sometimes for more than a year after their sentences expire.

It's a situation that the suit argues is unconstitutional and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which forbids discrimination based on a variety of medical conditions, including mental illness.

"In effect, [New York's] practices administratively lengthen plaintiffs' terms of imprisonment, undermining the most basic principle undergirding the criminal justice system: that a criminal sentence, once imposed by a judge, means what it says," the complaint said.

The New York State Office of Mental Health, which is one of the parties named in the suit, told Law360 that it could not comment on the allegations in the suit, but said, "New York funds one of the most robust supportive housing networks in the nation for individuals with mental illness. The state invests close to $500 million annually for community-based housing for adults with serious mental illness, including more than 44,000 units of housing statewide."

A representative for the office added that it is currently requesting additional funding in order to operate more housing units, including units designated for people being released from prison.

Currently, however, the suit alleges that the state prison system effectively keeps people with mental health disorders in prison well past their release date due to a lack of space in community housing programs.

The suit includes six unnamed men who are allegedly currently in DOCCS custody, despite having completed their sentences or made parole. However, the six are also seeking to act as representatives for all people in the New York state prison system in similar situations.

Perhaps the most striking example is the man identified by the initials C.J., who is 31 and has bipolar disorder, according to the complaint. C.J.'s sentence ended in September 2017, but more than a year later he remains in prison, the complaint said.

Initially, the prison went through the usual procedures to process C.J. out as the end of his sentence approached, but a week before he was scheduled to leave, he was told that he would not be released, according to the complaint.

Although he is listed as having been transferred to a residential treatment facility, he was instead transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison, the complaint said.

According to attorneys for C.J., Green Haven is rated as being able to provide services for people with serious mental health issues. But despite having finished his sentence, C.J. was held at Green Haven in a cell meant for prisoners and was subject to prison conditions, according to the complaint.

After seeing his release yanked away, C.J.'s mental health worsened, the complaint said, and he has told staff he has lost hope of ever being released, said that he would rather die than stay in prison, and repeatedly engaged in self-harm, according to the complaint.

Although the other men in the complaint did not experience as significant of a "downward spiral" as C.J., according to Stefen Short, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, others also suffered negative effects from being held in prison long after they expected to go home.

"Many of the people listed in the complaint have had similar experiences of increased symptoms of mental health [disorders]," Short said.

The complaint also indicates that due to delayed release, other men have experienced depression, hopelessness, sleep problems and marital difficulties. Some have asked to be allowed to go home to live with their families instead of waiting for a bed in a state-funded program, but those requests have been denied, according to the complaint.

The complaint indicates that about 2,000 people with mental health needs are discharged from state prisons every year, though attorneys noted that the exact number who use community housing programs funded by OMH is unknown.

OMH told Law360 that the office is asking for $12.5 million in additional annual funding for the operation of 500 additional units. The expansion would be part of the state's goal of adding 6,000 units by 2021, with 120 of them designated for people leaving prison.

Elena Landriscina, an attorney with Disability Rights New York, said that although the complaint included only six men, the organization's investigation showed that this was a problem happening across the state and that the shortage of beds in community housing programs seemed to be a widespread issue.

"Within our state, we have really successful programs [for community-based housing]," she said. "The community-based housing programs that already exist are really good models. ... The problem is that they haven't been built with sufficient capacity."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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