Inmates With Mental Health Issues Kept After Release Dates, Lawsuit Alleges

By Keri Blakinger 01/29/19

“Our clients are told, often on the day they expect to be released from prison, that they will not be leaving and must stay until community housing is located,” said the executive director of Disability Rights New York.

inmate with mental health issues standing in prison cell

In theory, MG is not in prison. His release date was in May 2017.

And yet, every day he wakes up in a windowless cell in the Auburn Correctional Facility. He wears green prison clothes, stands for count and identifies himself by the seven-digit number emblazoned on his shirt.  

That’s because MG is mentally ill and bound for community-based mental health housing—but there’s no space. So instead, the New York prison system has kept him, locking him up even after his sentence has technically ended. 

But MG isn’t the only prisoner held long past the expiration of his sentence. That’s why the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York last week filed a class action lawsuit against the state’s prison system, the New York State Office of Mental Health, the prison system and Governor Andrew Cuomo, claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and demanding that the state come up with better mental health housing options.  

“Our clients are told, often on the day they expect to be released from prison, that they will not be leaving and must stay until community housing is located,” said Timothy Clune, executive director of Disability Rights New York. “Further, documents produced by the Defendants show that New York State is well aware of the shortage of mental health housing for this population. Instead of addressing this shortage the State has been ignoring the problem and our clients.”

The six prisoners at the center of the new federal lawsuit are all mentally ill and at risk of homelessness, so the state decided they should be sent to supportive housing. But right now there isn’t enough, and when that happens, officials instead transfer prisoners like MG to one of 13 “residential treatment facilities”—all of which are in medium and maximum security prisons.

In effect, according to the lawsuit, the prison system is lengthening their sentences because they’re mentally ill, in the process “undermining the most basic principle undergirding the criminal justice system: that a criminal sentence, once imposed by a judge, means what it says.”

The state hasn’t responded in court to the legal claim just yet, and an Office of Mental Health official said they hadn’t been formally notified when reporters first started asking for comment.

"This lawsuit was served to the media before it was served to us, so we can't comment on its details," spokeswoman Jessica Riley told The Albany Times-Union. "However, New York funds one of the most robust supportive housing networks in the nation for individuals with mental illness."

The state pours nearly $500 million a year into community-based housing for people with serious mental illness. Currently, that funds around 44,000 housing units statewide, and there’s plans to have 6,000 more online by 2021. 

The other men in the lawsuit have stories similar to MG’s. 

CJ, who has bipolar disorder, was supposed to get out of prison in September 2017—but he’s still locked up in the Green Haven unit in Stormville, according to the legal filing. He got a GED and vocational certificate during his time behind bars, and had hoped to get a job and rebuild a life for himself near his family in Orange County. Instead, he’s spent the past year-and-a-half in and out of barren psychiatric observation cells where he’s been put on suicide watch after repeatedly telling prison staff he’d rather die than stay in prison.

MJ, who also has bipolar disorder, expected to get out in June 2018, according to court papers. Instead, he too was sent to Green Haven, where he’s been put in solitary twice for rules infractions—even though he shouldn’t be in prison to begin with.

JR has depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress. He’s repeatedly attempted to harm himself, and he should already be out of prison—but he’s still at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon. Prison staff have already asked him to sign release papers and told him he’s considered a parolee instead of an inmate, even though he’s still in prison, the suit claims.

DR, who has bipolar disorder, was slated for release in December 2017.

Yet, he’s still being held at the Fishkill facility, the suit alleges. He proposed living with his aunt, but officials denied him and insisted that he must wait for community-based mental health housing to open up, according to the federal claim.

It’s stories like these that prompted the legal advocates to file suit. They’re asking for class status; an order declaring the state’s actions unconstitutional; money for lawyers’ fees; and a permanent injunction forcing the state to make sufficient housing available and to come up with a better plan for mentally ill inmates in the future. 

It’s not part of their requested relief but, as the suit notes: “Plaintiffs want to be free from prison.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.