Lawsuit Claims NY Prisons Keep Mentally Ill Inmates Past Release Date

On Wednesday, a federal lawsuit was filed to force New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to create community-based mental health housing for people who have been approved for parole or completed their criminal sentences.


Six “free” men and their lawyers at the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York sought class-action status against the state corrections department and the Office of Mental Health, saying the men are facing cruel and unusual punishment and their civil rights are being violated.

They are “free” but they cannot leave prison.

The plaintiffs, some of whom have worked hard to better their health, earned GEDs, want to work, and reunite with their families have suffered mental health relapses as the state is holding them solely because they are waiting to be placed in supportive housing.

One man, who was in recovery, has now been put on suicide watch. Another man’s wife divorced him when he didn’t come home on his release date. One man, after years of incarceration, couldn’t wait to see his daughter again. Another was put in a unit with sex offenders and he has never been one.

Their diagnoses include bipolar disorder, PTSD, and schizophrenia and they are all in their 30s and 50s.

Almost 50 percent of the NY State prison population is Black; 73 percent are people of color. Studies show about 20 percent of prison populations have mental illness.

In some cases, extended time has amounted to 16 months past their release dates, and others have been forced into solitary confinement and faced other punishment, the lawsuit alleges.

“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.”

Gov. Cuomo approved the building of 20,000 new supportive housing units, and state lawmakers, so far, have allocated $2.6 billion to create the first 6,000 units by 2021.

Community-based services not only offer housing but also allow people to re-acclimate to their communities with support, including connections to continued mental health services and jobs to help them achieve successful lives after prison.

Counties, however, who have requested funding from the Office of Mental Health for it, have been ignored, according to the lawsuit.

And Jessica Riley, spokeswoman for the state Office of Mental Health, said, of the 6,000 new units to be added, only 120 would be targeted to individuals being released from prison. Though she claims New York is, “one of the most robust supportive housing networks in the nation for individuals with mental illness.”

There are now 44,000 housing units, and experts say that is only half of what is needed.

Stefen Short, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney, said in a statement, “It’s shameful that New York State keeps them in prison simply because they have mental illnesses and need supportive housing.”

Reader Question: Do you think mental health services and supportive housing should be provided for those who are released from prison

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