American Jails Are Becoming Last-Resort Psychiatric Wards. The Result Is Brutality.

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 15 2014 11:53 AM

American Jails Are Becoming Last-Resort Psychiatric Wards. The Result Is Brutality.

114290526-view-of-buildings-at-the-rikers-island-penitentiary
A view of buildings at the Rikers Island penitentiary complex.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

As correctional facilities in the U.S. struggle to address a long-term surge in inmates with mental health issues, a New York Times exposé on the city's Rikers Island jail demonstrates in brutal and specific detail what happens when corrections officers are given a job that might better be handled by psychiatrists. 

Rikers Island houses as many mentally afflicted people as “all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined,” the piece says, and the Times’ investigation found that 77 percent of the 129 inmates seriously injured in altercations with guards during an 11-month period had been diagnosed with a mental illness. In one instance, officers handcuffed and pummeled an inmate after he attempted to hang himself, leaving him with a perforated bowel. In another, two inmates were badly beaten even after they had been handcuffed to gurneys.

New York City correction commissioner Joseph Ponte has increased the amount of mental health training received by Department of Correction officers; the article suggests that many correction officers treat detainees with hostility because they are dissatisfied with their jobs:

A lot of the guards are not happy about being there, either. Several interviewed said they worked at Rikers because it pays a good union wage with pension benefits. When asked about the job itself, repeatedly the answer was, “I hate it.”
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Two-thirds of jail infractions—including most of the assaults on prison officials—are committed by mentally ill inmates.  

Read the full piece here, and read this Wall Street Journal piece for more on the broader national issue of increasing mentally ill populations in prison, a trend that the Journal links to reductions in public mental health budgets and changing ideas about the value of institutionalizing patients.

Irene Chidinma Nwoye is a writer and Slate intern in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.