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Disability Rights Group Slams Mental Health Program at New York State Prison

by Derek Gilna

Disability Rights New York (DRNY), the state’s Protection & Advocacy group, which has a federal mandate to advocate for people with disabilities, issued a lengthy report critical of the treatment of prisoners in a mental health program at the Sullivan Correctional Facility (SCF). In its report, the organization presented its findings and recommendations after investigating complaints regarding the provision of services to prisoners with intellectual, developmental and mental health disabilities.

For example, some prisoners reported they were physically abused in an area without surveillance cameras, and alleged a guard in the program used racial slurs and instigated confrontations. Further, according to DRNY, “some mental health staff treat behavioral incidents as volitional and manipulative, rather than as a manifestation of disability or a response to environmental factors.”

SCF was first investigated in 2014 for neglecting disabled prisoners, and in response the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) instituted a 64-bed Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation (CAR) program. According to the report, DOCCS “created CAR to address the needs of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) and to serve as a rehabilitative alternative to punitive isolation in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). Individuals with ID/DD who receive punishment of isolation over 30 days in SHU are transferred to CAR, where they complete their punitive segregation sanction, but receive up to four hours of out-of-cell therapeutic programming per day.”

CAR was an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, People v. Fischer, which challenged the use of solitary confinement rather than treatment for prisoners with mental health problems. The settlement agreement reached in that litigation resulted in many positive changes in the non-punitive treatment of prisoners requiring specialized mental health care. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.40].

DRNY’s investigation found that although the CAR program at SCF was well-designed and provided “an appropriate physical space” for participants, its eligibility requirements were “under-inclusive” and often “ill-defined.” Unfortunately, the report stated, too often prisoners who graduated from CAR were unnecessarily returned to the SHU. In addition, DOCCS often placed CAR-eligible prisoners in the SHU “outside of the ‘unusual circumstances’ process,” and failed to utilize “non-punitive alternatives” such as the removal of certain incentives.

The CAR program was also criticized for lacking “clear or adequate standards for discharge from the program” and for not applying those standards consistently. DOCCS staff tended to use “[u]nnecessary use of force resulting in injuries,” the report found, noting that “Corrections staff are ill equipped to work with individuals with ID/DD, due to deficiencies in training.”

DRNY presented several suggestions for improving the CAR program, including the development of “evaluative criteria that utilize best practices to properly identify and admit those eligible for CAR,” removing “the ‘exit ramps’ that lead back to SHU,” utilizing more non-punitive interventions, making reasonable accommodations for prisoners who need “assistance making requests for service” and using “best [non-violent] practices” to handle crisis situations.

Finally, the report concluded, CAR must increase transparency by publicizing treatment data, using outside experts to monitor operations, and investigating and resolving complaints related to “treatment, programming, and environmental conditions.”

In its response to the DRNY report, New York prison officials claimed the CAR program at SCF was “adequately serving” prisoners with mental disabilities. 


Sources: “Report and Recommendations on the Treatment of Individuals with Intellectual, Developmental, and Mental Health Disabilities at Sullivan Correctional Facility,” by Disability Rights New York (July 2016);

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