If there is one thing we can be sure of as a civil society, it is that people struggling with mental illness do not belong in the general prison population, there to be used and abused by other inmates and for their conditions to deteriorate even further.
Yet, that is what New York State is doing. By deinstitutionalizing most of its mentally ill residents from inpatient facilities without providing a necessary community-based network of care, the state has left those people prey to the criminal justice system, which is not equipped to handle them, let alone provide a level of care that could help them improve.
It’s been an issue in New York for decades and is becoming worse as the state takes away more and more treatment centers for the mentally ill. On Sunday, Buffalo News staff reporter Matthew Spina gave readers an intense look into the problems that victimize victims as well as their families.
Gregory J. Seifert provides one example. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and chronic paranoid schizophrenia, Seifert was arrested last year for taking a chain saw to wooden power poles in Orchard Park, compromising them enough that a windstorm toppled them and cut power to 6,300 customers. He had been in Lake Shore Health Care Center in Irving, but was released days earlier – against his doctor’s advice. Insurance on his inpatient care had expired.
He was arrested for cutting the poles and sent to jail. There, he implied that he worked for the CIA, wrote threatening letters to people he knows, trashed his cell with food, removed his identification bracelet and tore up a T-shirt and wore parts of it as socks.
After nearly a year in jail, he started a fire by jamming a shower rod tipped with foil into a power outlet. For that, he was charged with second-degree arson, a felony that could land him in prison for 25 years.
After nearly 20 months in jail, a compassionate judge ruled that Seifert lacked the capacity to stand trial and ordered him into the custody of the state Office of Mental Health. He is now living at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, where his condition appears to be improving. If he improves sufficiently, he can stand trial for arson.
But would he have damaged the power poles if he had gotten the treatment he needed? Perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up in jail. And if, instead of jail, he’d have been placed in a facility such as the Rochester Psychiatric Center, would his condition have stabilized enough that he wouldn’t stand accused of starting a fire?
It’s fair to surmise that Seifert would not be facing a life-destroying prison sentence if he had received the care he needed, and Seifert is not alone in being mauled by a health care system that didn’t serve him and again by a criminal justice system that is not meant to.
It’s going to get worse. Already, reliable estimates are that there are three times more mentally ill prison and jail inmates than there are mentally ill patients in hospitals across the country. In New York, more psychiatric centers are expected to close next year.
This system – if you can call it that – isn’t working. Worse than not working, it is abusing some of the nation’s and the state’s most vulnerable people.
Prisons should not be warehouses for the mentally ill. New York needs a new way of confronting this problem. The first step is to apply the rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. The state shouldn’t close more functioning psychiatric centers until it has found a better way of dealing with an issue that won’t go away.