Albany Times Union
This needs correction
Dozens of people who end up in New York jails and prisons have taken their own lives in recent years. The state must do more to prevent this.
Jails and prisons aren’t meant to be pleasant places, but that doesn’t mean serving time in one should be a death sentence. Unfortunately, for some inmates in New York, incarceration can become too much to bear.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be.
At least 90 inmates died by suicide in local jails and state prisons between 2016 and 2021, the Times Union’s Melissa Manno found in a review of New York Commission of Correction records. And it would appear that some of those deaths would have been preventable if not for a lack of communication among arresting officers, courts and jail or prison officials about threats of self-harm, drug addition, mental health problems and medication needs. Better psychiatric care and consistent administration and monitoring of medication for mental health conditions inside jail and prison walls also would save lives.
Jails and prisons have always been tough, scary places, and that isn’t going to end any time soon. But there are things that can be done to address what statistics from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice statishas tics show has been a rise over the past two decades in suicides in local, state and federal facilities.
To their credit, the state Commission of Correction and Office of Mental Health have developed a suicide screening model, and county correction officers are required to receive suicide prevention training, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. More than 40 counties in New York have also established mental health courts, which can divert people accused of low-level crimes to treatment rather than jail or prison.
There are further obvious issues to address. Most immediately, police and courts should be ensuring that they promptly advise jail and prison authorities that a prisoner has mental health problems or drug addiction, requires prescription medication, or other medical needs. And jails and prisons should make sure that they consistently check on whether each and every person they’re taking in needs health or mental health services, or is contemplating suicide.
More broadly, state lawmakers need to address the fact that decades of deinstitutionalization have left many people with mental health problems on the street — without the state investing in sufficient funding for outpatient mental health services and supports. All those mental health courts are of little value if treatment services are stretched too thin to help new clients.
Drug addiction treatment, too, has been long underfunded in New York despite billions of dollars in settlements with opioid manufacturers for the addiction crisis their products caused. The societal consequence is apparent: An estimated 85 percent of the nation’s prison population has a substance abuse disorder or a conviction for a crime involving drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
These are issues the state Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul can and should address this session. Government can deal with this either before people wind up behind bars, or after — when it’s far, far more expensive. And, for some, deadly.