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.

- To comment:

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.

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