“Economically it is not feasible, and the practice flies in the face of the social justice that we value as Americans. Failure to implement a smart, strategic, well-informed, and well-constructed decarceration policy will result in repeating all of the mistakes and the outcomes of the deinstitutionalization of mental health institutions.”

Rikers Island

Adi Talwar

Rikers Island.

The decarceration of non-violent offenders from Rikers Island is completely inevitable. The cost is too high, both financially and morally, to keep people behind bars who could be safely released while awaiting trial or doing community service under supervision programs such as electronic monitoring, probation, or parole. These individuals also need assistance in place for mental health, substance abuse treatment, educational/vocational training, housing support and other social service programs to reduce their return to the criminal justice system.

The problem is, we’re going about decarceration in the same way we went about the de-institutionalization of the mental health institutions here in New York back in the 1960s and ‘70s. That, as we all know—and as is well-documented in the professional literature—was a complete and total debacle. Indeed, studies have shown that incarceration rates rose in direct proportion to closures of state treatment facilities.

Many of those released from those sanitariums (or who came of age after they were no longer available) became wards of different institutions: city and state jails and prisons, which have become the largest de facto mental hospital in the state. “According to the US Department of Justice, 64% of those incarcerated in jails, 56% of state inmates, and 45% of federal prisoners exhibit symptoms of severe psychopathology such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia,” one 2013 analysis notes. If we add those who have minor mental disorders, including public intoxication and substance abuse, the numbers soar.

How did this come to pass?

It was because the state mental health facilities were closed without putting alternative care in place first. There were all sorts of pronouncements about providing “care in the community”—but these were never instituted, and patients exited these institutions with nothing there to replace services.

Supportive housing and SROs (Single Room Occupancies) were available to a small portion of this population, but services were never adequate, and these residences diminished or were discontinued entirely due to pressures from the soaring real estate market in New York City. As even these minimal housing supports were closed or converted into condos, many residents became homeless and turned to crime in order to provide food—or to be arrested and get what little food and shelter they could obtain in jail, as horrible as it is. Others were arrested for acting out inappropriately (loitering, stealing, trespassing, exposure) since they were receiving no treatment while living on the street—no counseling, no medication, nothing—for their severe mental illness.

Decades later, we are no closer to ameliorating the suffering of those who do not have access to mental health care and housing support. Transinstitutionalization and criminalization of the mentally ill continues to be a problem. Since those hospitals remain shuttered and minimal replacement services are available in the community, many continue to suffer. Forced to live on the street in abysmal conditions, they experience drug addiction, mental illness, social marginalization, poverty, community violence, physical and mental abuse, and a sense of hopelessness. Often, they simply give up and hide in the shadows. Still others (relatively few) become violent and act out against fellow members of society, causing them to enter the criminal justice system, where they receive minimal, if any, treatment.

Because as bad as the care may have been at those “snake pits” that were the now-closed state mental hospitals, it was not as bad as it is now for those with severe mental illness who are incarcerated. Their symptoms often worsen due to the privations and depredations of jail and prison, especially if they are put into punitive isolation, as they often are, since they are unable to follow rules and may act out inappropriately.

Incarcerated people with mental illness are surrounded by opportunistic criminals who may prey on their vulnerabilities. They are “cared for” by corrections officers who have little to no training in mental health issues. They receive only occasional visits from mental health staff who may even have to treat them through a locked cell door, barely able to assess and diagnose their conditions, much less provide appropriate medication, counseling, or therapeutic treatment.

Of course, there are also many inmates who do not fall within the categories of mental illness or substance abuse, who are also candidates for decarceration. They will succeed in citizen reentry given appropriate social service assistance such as education, job training, job placement, housing support, and life skills such as anger management, parenting, and more.

Getting it right this time

If we don’t want decarceration to repeat the same debacle that occurred with deinstitutionalization, we must put the alternatives to incarceration in place first. It’s time to start to thinking outside of the box and address this problem head-on, with the understanding that the solution will take both human resources and financial resources.

We must be both smart and strategic in our development of a policy for effective decarceration that takes into account protecting society from violent offenders while simultaneously providing social justice in the form of much-needed services to the non-violent offenders who can be safely released from the criminal justice system and actively contribute to society.

Thinking outside of the box involves reallocating, re-framing, recasting, and repurposing existing staff and resources within the New York City Department of Correction. Specifically:

  • Uniformed correction officers should be trained—and paid—to function as case managers; 
  • Potential inmate candidates for decarceration should be assessed by professionals using evidence-based diagnostic tools, and appropriate supports should be put in place for them prior to their release from jail or prison;
  • That portion of the Rikers Island facility no longer used to house inmates should be converted into offices for decarceration personnel; 
  • Existing jail services (such as education and vocational training, job placement, mental and physical health care, housing and nutrition support, anger management, social service referrals, etc.) should be repurposed to serve decarcerated clients via the correction officer case manager;
  • Each borough needs a single jail that will serve as a one-stop hub for all services that the decarcerated person needs.

In this manner we can make use of existing staff and resources without greatly increasing the budget allotted to the Department of Correction. Utilizing evidence-based assessment tools for selecting inmates for decarceration, together with provision of appropriate social service supports, will reduce any safety concerns related to those who are released into the community.

Thinking outside of the box also involves deep and functional partnerships with a number of key city agencies. This multidisciplinary cadre of law enforcement, social services, education and training, job placement, housing, and physical and mental health professionals is the cornerstone to a smart and strategic decarceration policy.  One of the most important concepts in decarceration is to have a fully implemented plan in place for each and every person, with all services available on the very first day of their decarceration.

It is also extremely important to note that those decarcerated persons who are non-violent and yet unable to become fully functioning members of society due to mental illness or other medical conditions must be managed and comprehensively cared for. (As a side note, of course, these services should be provided for all members of the community, whether they have had any contact with the criminal justice system or not. One shouldn’t have to be decarcerated from incarceration in order to receive much-needed mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, housing, and other critical social services.)

People formerly involved with the criminal justice system, who themselves may have been decarcerated, must be invited to be part of the multidisciplinary team to help develop policy in the area of the decarceration, as well as to provide peer counseling to newly decarcerated individuals. Their lived experience of being housed at Rikers Island and then re-entering society gives the team a view of the issues through the lens of the client, invaluable to those who do not have personal experience of incarceration and return to the community. By taking advantage of this unique perspective, we can avoid mistakes that were made in the past deinstitutionalization.

Housing for decarcerated persons must also be normalized. No more shelters. No more hotels. No more halfway houses, transitional housing, or “three-quarter houses” to which those released from city jails were routinely referred. Housing must consist of real apartments and homes within the community, providing support in the form of intensive case workers.

These workers are able to form relationships with decarcerated clients, thereby gaining not just their compliance but also promulgating growth towards independence.

“Housing First” is an important concept for providing shelter regardless of whether or not people are compliant with medication and treatment—but this support should be provided, nonetheless. Needed services include everything from physical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, help with obtaining government identification, applying for nutrition and education programs, therapeutic and rehabilitative services as needed, anger management, parenting programs, family reunification, life skills classes, and more.

As always, there will be naysayers

This, of course, is unavoidable. The belief espoused by conservative thinkers that decarceration will fail is often based on the real history of failure in the deinstitutionalization of the mental health system and the subsequent trauma to society (this failure due, of course, to the lack of alternatives put in place before patients were released, as noted above). 

Still other conservative-minded thinkers who are ideologically to the right—many employed by correctional institutions—argue that as we decarcerate individuals there will be a reduced need for jails and prisons, which essentially serve as a jobs program in many small towns.

This issue is beyond the scope of this op-ed, but in a nutshell, many of these towns will have to reinvent themselves without having the correctional institution as their primary source of income, which will involve re-training the former correctional officers and other citizens of these towns in new and varied careers. New York State has closed a number of correctional institutions over the past 10-20 years, and it would be beneficial to study these examples to see how the communities have repurposed the facilities, retrained former staff, etc.

Radical left naysayers, on the other hand, will argue that we should simply close Rikers Island altogether, as well as all correctional institutions, and release inmates willy-nilly, even those who have acted out violently against members of society. Some even claim that people act out violently because society somehow “did them wrong.”

It may be true that due to a variety of problems within our society, some people have been mistreated; that’s a given, but not an excuse to behave violently against fellow citizens. Many people experience loss, abuse, and oppression without acting out in this way. Law enforcement’s primary mission is the protection of society. Part of this mission is to remove violent citizens from society while providing them with rehabilitation, or whatever assistance they need to become functional and law-abiding members of society.

Those with severe mental illness, obviously, need particular help in order to not be a danger to themselves or others.  A smart decarceration program, of course, will employ evidence-based assessment tools to determine who can be safely released to community-based programs and successfully return to society.

Winning over naysayers on both the right and left will be difficult. Both liberals and conservatives can acknowledge that as budgets for social services were cut—reducing education, job training, youth employment, recreation, mental health, and other programs—more problems arose in the community. Then the police, without appropriate training or funding, were suddenly expected to solve these issues, such as responding to people acting out due to bad drug experiences or other mental health problems.

And as a hammer only knows how to hit a nail, the police only know how to deal with people “causing problems” by arresting them—leading to an increase in incarceration. To decarcerate successfully, in addition to reducing the number of people currently behind bars, we must also stem the incoming tide of those being locked up and direct them to social service programs or alternative courts (e.g., drug courts, mental health courts, etc.) rather than throwing them into the general population at Rikers or whatever facilities are constructed to replace it.

As a society, we can no longer afford to lock up nonviolent people for extended periods of time. Economically it is not feasible, and the practice flies in the face of the social justice that we value as Americans. Failure to implement a smart, strategic, well-informed, and well-constructed decarceration policy will result in repeating all of the mistakes and the outcomes of the deinstitutionalization of mental health institutions. This of course would be a catastrophic tragedy in that it would exponentially increase the number of homeless, addicted, mentally ill, violent, and hopeless people on the streets of New York.

This failure would result in real danger to citizens who have never come into contact with the criminal justice system, as well as cataclysmic social injustice to those decarcerated returning citizens who are on the verge of re-entering and successfully contributing to society. Let’s make the smart choices and get it right this time.

David A. Fullard is a visiting associate professor and program coordinator for the Black Male Initiative at SUNY/Empire State College, a member of the SUNY/Empire State College Foundation Board of Directors, senior advisor at the SUNY/Rockefeller Institute of Government/Center for Law & Policy Solutions, and the CEO of Applied Forensic, Social and Behavioral Science Consultants, LLC.

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