Opinion: If it Approves Borough Jails, Council Must Invest in Mental Health

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Murphy

Under a city plan for new borough jails, the buses will stop rolling to Rikers. But they will keep rolling.

On Tuesday the City Planning Commission gave its approval to the city’s proposed plan for borough-based jails to facilitate the closure of Rikers, moving the ball into the City Council’s court. Advocates for the closure of Rikers now look to the City Council to use their power to ensure this plan includes commitments to resources for the Black and Brown communities that have been the most harmed by Rikers—which includes both geographic communities, and the NYC community of people living with mental health concerns.

Working, and living, for years with people who have mental health needs and who have been criminalized — we see the real impact of disinvestment in mental health on human beings, their loved ones and our communities. New York City has participated in the dehumanization and warehousing of human beings for far too long. Rather than addressing a citywide mental health crisis (1 out of 5 New Yorkers live with a mental health concern) and making life-saving investments, leading with public health solutions, the city continues to turn a blind eye or attempt to place bandages over the real issues.

Across the country, our bloated criminal punishment system reflects a historical and continuing lack of investment in the health and well-being of people and communities. If our public health system and institutions were fully resourced at the city, state, and federal levels, New York City may never have had the Rikers Island jails. As the City Council considers this plan to shrink the jail system and improve conditions for those still detained, we recognize that improved conditions in jails—while addressing an urgent need—are not the answer to the unaddressed mental health needs that drive far too many interactions with law enforcement. In the past 3 years, these interactions have led to the deaths of 14 people with mental health concerns, while many others have resulted in escalation and trauma.

This is the right time for the city to also make a bold commitment to support people with serious and persistent mental and behavioral health needs, in ways that will prevent contact (or further contact) with law enforcement at every possible juncture.

Thirteen key organizations and thought leaders—representing grassroots constituencies of people who have been incarcerated and people living with mental health concerns, as well as advocates and service providers who work with them—have developed a detailed Roadmap for Mental Health Resources and Diversion.

The Roadmap contains vital demands including ensuring: that law enforcement are not the first responders in cases of mental health crises, nor responsible for taking the lead during these times of crisis; supportive housing for people with a range of mental health and substance dependencies and their families; investments to scale to  provide people with the resources they will need to thrive and not return to jail; and pre-charge diversion that prioritizes treatment.

We are calling on the City Council to insist that the Administration meet these recommendations, which are fully within the city’s power and capacity, especially given the projected cost savings of downsizing our jail system: over $1.6 billion annually by the Lippman Commission’s estimate. We know New York City has the resources to make these investments, and the Mayor and Council must have the political will as well.

Peggy Herrera is a member of JustLeadershipUSA, a leader of the #CLOSErikers campaign, a counselor for justice-involved youth, and a parent whose son lives with mental health concerns. Minister, Dr. Victoria A. Phillips (Ms.V) is the Founder of Visionary V, the Community, Health and Justice Organizer with the Mental Health Project — Urban Justice Center, an organizer with the Jails Action Coalition, member of the NYC Department of Corrections Advisory Board and previously provided cognitive behavioral therapy on Rikers Island and in other settings for people affected by mental health concerns and the criminal punishment system.

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