by John E. Dannenberg
Prior to leaving office, on August 16, 2006, then New York Governor George Pataki (R)vetoed Assembly Bill No. 3926-A, which would have provided $280 - $380 million to construct Residential Mental Health Treatment Programs (RHMTP) to house and control the behavior of seriously mentally ill New York state prisoners who are being disciplined by placement in administrative segregation (Special Housing Units (SHU)). Pataki essentially belittled the RHMTP concept as the coddling of mental miscreants, overlooking New York prison statistics revealing the tripling of suicide and self-mutilation rates of seriously mentally ill prisoners when placed in the SHU. Pataki?s veto message, wherein he admitted he had been "convinced by ... dedicated [prison] professionals," argued that providing special treatment for seriously mentally ill prisoner- disciplinees "would invite the feigning of illness ... to avoid SHU confinement."
Approved unanimously in the Senate, and 133-6 in the Assembly, the bill was intended to put New York on the forefront of prisoner serious mental illness treatment. The legislature recognized that 12 percent of New York's prison population suffers from serious mental illness, rising to 23 percent of the 7,600 SHU prisoners. "Besides being inhumane, placing a mentally ill inmate in solitary confinement makes a bad situation worse," observed state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. The legislative commentary accompanying the bill noted the widely known harsh, aggravating and deleterious effects of punitive segregation, calling it "inhumane and counterproductive."
Nonetheless, Pataki wrote, "Without the ability to impose disciplinary segregation to protect inmates and staff from those who are unwilling to adhere to even the most minimum levels of civilized behavior, correctional facilities cannot provide the safety and programming needed to allow those committed to rehabilitation to pursue that attainable and worthy goal." Or, translating this mouthful of bureaucratese, "take those that are too ill to control their behavior, condemn them as irredeemable, and slam them 24/7 to make life easier for prison staff." Pataki pointed out existing prison mental health programs and scheduled improvements. But none of these will get the needy 23 percent out of interminable SHU lockup where their condition only predictably worsens.
"It's a bitter disappointment. Pataki missed a great opportunity to make New York state a national leader. It's a terrible thing," lamented Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.
Sources: Ottaway News Service, Associated Press.
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