New York promised help for mentally ill inmates but still sticks many in solitary

In New York, inmates diagnosed with ‘serious’ disorders have been protected from solitary confinement. But since that policy began, the number of inmates diagnosed with such disorders has dropped

This story was co-produced with WNYC.

When Amir Hall entered New York state prison for a parole violation in November 2009, he came with a long list of psychological problems. Hall arrived at the prison from a state psychiatric hospital, after he had tried to suffocate himself. Hospital staff diagnosed Hall with serious depression.

In Mid-State prison, Hall was in and out of solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates and other rule violations. After throwing Kool-Aid at an officer, he was sentenced to seven months in solitary at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.

Hall did not want to be moved. When his mother and grandmother visited him that spring, Hall warned them: If he didn't get out of prison soon, he would not be coming home.

A grainy tape of Hall's transfer on June 18, 2010, shows prison guards spraying chemicals into his cell, forcing him to come out. He barely says a word as he is made to strip, shower, bend over and cough. His head drops, his shoulders slump. His face is blank and expressionless. He stares at his hands, except for a few furtive glances at the silent guards wearing gas masks and riot gear.

"There was somebody who looked defeated, like the life was beat out of him," said his sister Shaleah Hall. "I don't know who that person was. The person in that video was not my brother."

Multiple studies have shown that isolation can damage inmates' minds, particularly those already struggling with mental illness. In recent years, New York state has led the way in implementing policies to protect troubled inmates from the trauma of solitary confinement.

A 2007 federal court order required New York to provide inmates with "serious" mental illness more treatment while in solitary. And a follow-up law enacted in 2011 all but bans such inmates from being put there altogether.

But something odd has happened: Since protections were first added, the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness has dropped. The number of inmates diagnosed with "serious" mental illness is down 33 percent since 2007, compared to a 13 percent decrease in the state's prison population.

A larger portion of inmates flagged for mental issues are now being given more modest diagnoses, such as adjustment disorders or minor mood disorders.

It's unclear what exactly is driving the drop in "serious" diagnoses. But "whenever you draw a magic line, and somebody gets all these rights above it and none below it," said Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project for the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York, "you create an incentive to push people below." The association was one of a coalition of organizations that called for the change in policy.

The New York Office of Mental Health says the decrease reflects improvements to the screening process. Efforts to base diagnoses on firmer evidence "has resulted in somewhat fewer, but better-substantiated diagnoses" of serious mental illness, said a spokesman for the office in an emailed statement.

In Hall's case, prison mental health staff never labeled his problems as "serious."

Instead, they repeatedly downgraded his diagnosis. After three months in solitary — during which Hall was put on suicide watch twice — they changed his status to a level for inmates who have experienced "at least six months of psychiatric stability."

Two weeks after his diagnosis was downgraded, and two days after he was transferred to solitary at Great Meadow, guards found Hall in his cell hanging from a bed sheet.

As part of a report issued on every inmate death, the Corrections Department's Medical Review Board found no documented reason behind the change in Hall's diagnosis.

A 2011 Poughkeepsie Journal investigation detailed a spike in inmate suicides in 2010, which disproportionately took place in solitary confinement. Death reports from the state's oversight committee obtained by the Journal suggest several inmates who have committed suicide in recent years may have been under-diagnosed.

Hall's family is suing the Corrections Department and the Office of Mental Health, among other defendants, for failing to treat his mental illness and instead locking him in solitary.

"If someone knew anything, had any inkling that there was that going on, why was he put there?" asked his aunt Sonya Hall.

New York State's Office of Mental Health, which is in charge of inmates' mental health care, declined to comment on Hall's case, citing the litigation.

Amir Hall (or Mir, as his family calls him) was originally arrested in October 2007, for the unarmed robbery of a Verizon store. He made off with $86. Released on parole, he lived with his sister Shaleah Hall and her two sons while working at a local Holiday Inn and studying to become a nurse.

"Sometimes I sit there thinking that he's going to walk through the door and make everybody laugh," said Shaleah, who has "In Loving Memory of Amir" tattooed in a curling ribbon on her right bicep. "He was the life of the party. If you met him, you would just love him."

But Hall's mood could shift in an instant, Shaleah said. He was often paranoid, worried that people judged him for being gay. He would snap, then apologize repeatedly for it afterward.

"You had to walk on eggshells sometimes, because you never knew if he was going to be happy or sad that day," Shaleah said. "It was like this ever since we were kids."

One of those outbursts landed Hall back in prison for violating parole, after he got into a fight with Shaleah's friend.

Knowing her brother's history of mental illness, Shaleah said solitary confinement must have "drove him crazy."

"I feel like they treated him like an animal," she said. "They just locked him away and forgot about him."

The lawsuit over Hall's death claims mental health and prison staff ignored recommendations that he receive more treatment, and that staff members failed to properly assess his mental health when he arrived at Great Meadow.

In a response to the state oversight committee's assessment of Hall's case, the Office of Mental Health said they were retraining staff on screening for suicide risk. The Corrections Department said they were working to improve communication when inmates are transferred to new facilities.

Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney with the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, noted Hall's case during a Senate hearing on solitary confinement. "The repeated punitive responses to [Hall] as he psychiatrically deteriorated in solitary confinement exemplify the importance of vigilance and monitoring, and the need for diversion from harmful solitary confinement," she wrote.

Kerr points out that significant improvements have been made for inmates diagnosed above the "serious" mental illness line. The new mental health units provide at least four hours of out-of-cell treatment a day, and speed up an inmate's return to the general population.

"I don't think those improvements should be taken lightly," said Kerr. "In terms of mental health policy, we're way ahead of the country."

But when it comes to solitary confinement, "New York is among the worst states," said Taylor Pendergrass of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the state over its use of isolation. "Even if you're totally sane and you go into solitary, it's incredibly hard to deal with the psychological toll of that," he said.

Solitary confinement is used in jails and prisons across the country, though there's no reliable data to compare its prevalence among states. Experts say New York stands out for sentencing inmates to solitary for infractions as minor as having too many postage stamps or a messy cell. A report from the NYCLU found that five out of six solitary sentences in New York prisons were for "non-violent misbehavior."

Under the state's new law, all inmates housed in solitary — known in New York as Special Housing Units, or SHU — receive regular check-ins from mental health staff. The screenings are meant to catch inmates not originally diagnosed with a disorder who develop problems in isolation.

But Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center, said she thinks many staff members still view inmates' symptoms as attempts to avoid punishment. "If you don't believe that being in solitary can have detrimental effects to a person's mental health, you're going to see someone who just says, 'I want to get out of here,'" she said.

Beck has seen the same skepticism in conversations with some prison staff. "There's a bias in the system that looks at the incarcerated population as anti-social, malingerers, manipulators," Beck said. "I hear that all the time."

When inmates ask to see mental health staff, "we have found far too often that it appears security staff really resent people asking for these interventions," Beck said. "We have in a few facilities what I think are credible stories of individuals being beaten up when they want to go to the crisis center."

As Sarah Kerr sees it, "if mental health staff are overly concerned that people are feigning illness, that they're conning their way out of special housing ... that will lead to tragedies."

The Corrections Department says any unusual behavior by inmates or attempts to hurt themselves are reported to mental health staff. A spokesman for the Office of Mental Health said "inmates reporting psychiatric symptoms are taken seriously and assessed carefully."

Donna Currao said prison staff ignored her and her husband, Tommy Currao, when he attempted suicide at least 10 times over the course of 10 months in solitary confinement. According to his wife, Currao had been sent to solitary after testing positive for heroin.

Currao's first suicide attempt in solitary was in July 2012, when he tried to overdose on heroin. That October, guards found him attempting to hang himself in his cell. While on suicide watch after he tried again to overdose, Currao broke open his hearing aid and used the metal inside to cut his wrists. (He received a bill of $500 for "destruction of state property," Donna said.)

Both the Corrections Department and the Office of Mental Health declined to comment on Currao's case.

According to the Corrections Department, an inmate can be returned to solitary confinement after being on suicide watch if they're cleared by the Office of Mental Health. In 2011, 14 percent of the 8,242 inmates released from New York's mental health crisis units were sent to solitary confinement.

After just three weeks in isolation, Donna noticed a dramatic change in her husband. He "was withdrawn, all he would do is apologize," Donna said. He was no longer laughing with her, playing cards or chatting with other inmates. She watched him drop from 240 pounds to 160.

Currao stopped writing the almost daily letters he'd sent for 13 years. When Donna persuaded him to start again, as a way to escape, he talked of an overwhelming sadness.

Donna says she repeatedly called the prison. She faxed them copies of Currao's suicidal letters. But he remained in isolation.

"I don't know if they don't want to spend the money, or think it's a joke," she said. "They still thought he wanted out of solitary. He wanted out of the picture is what he wanted."

A survey by the state's independent oversight committee found many family members who said prison officials didn't listen to concerns about inmates' psychological wellbeing. None of the mental health files reviewed by the oversight committee contained information from family members about a prisoner's psychiatric history.

The Office of Mental Health says it's working on creating new procedures to "insure that the call is responded to promptly and in a manner that addresses the family member's concern as best as possible."

Prisoner rights advocates are also working on a new legislative proposal to ensure that mentally ill inmates get the treatment they need. A coalition of groups is drafting a new bill, which would expand protections from solitary for inmates with mental illness, and put a limit on solitary confinement sentences for any prisoner, whether or not they're diagnosed with a disorder.

"Even though there's a law that says you can't do this for people with serious mental illness, it hasn't stopped [Corrections] from using solitary," said Parish. "I think they just replaced it with lower-level tickets instead of some of the most serious ones."

In May, Donna's persistence in trying to get her husband treatment finally saw results. Currao met with a psychologist, and was diagnosed with "serious" anti-social personality disorder and dysthymic disorder. He was moved out of solitary confinement and into one of the 170 Residential Mental Health Treatment beds created under the recent law.

Currao "seems to be 1,000 times better" since entering treatment, Donna said. He talks about wanting to become a counselor when he's released.

But Donna wonders why it took so many suicide attempts and nearly a year of pressure to get her husband a proper diagnosis and the treatment he was legally owed. "They are not enforcing this law," she said. "Why do we have to fight so hard to get them evaluated?"

Hall's family is left with the same questions as they search for answers about his death. "How many more people have to die?" Shaleah asked. "They need help. Locking them away is hurting them more."




Should retail investors add govt bonds to their investment portfolio?

Government bonds are rarely explored as an investment option by retail investors, due to numerous reasons. The current scenario, however, offers a unique opportunity to the retail investors to add government bonds to their portfolio

Unlike equities and some other popular investment options where they have fair understanding of investment process, retail investors have remained away from Government Bonds in the past. With bond yields touching close to 10% in some of the central government bonds, it is probably the right time for investors to explore the option of investment in government bonds, especially, considering the fact that the equity market has hit investors really hard.

What are the benefits of buying government bonds and why should retail investors add these securities to their portfolio? The reasons are many. The first reason is the prevailing high yield to maturity on these bonds. The yield to maturity (YTM) on a bond is the rate of return that an investor would earn if he bought the bond at its current market price and held it until maturity. Bond prices have fallen substantially during the last one month because of various measures announced by RBI to control the fall in the rupee. With the fall in prices of bond, the yield to maturity of the bonds has gone up, making them an attractive investment option for a new investor. While existing investors in these bonds are bleeding, the new entrants can enjoy the benefit of high returns.

The second reason for buying these bonds is that they provide investors an option to hold these bonds for fairly long period. This essentially means that long-term return can be expected from these bonds on a consistent basis. For instance, today an investor can buy 8.32% government security with a maturity year of 2032 and expect a yield to maturity of approximately 9.5% for next 20 years, which will be a good return for a fairly long period of time. The investor must hold these bonds till maturity to get this benefit. Selling of bond in between may not assure this return. If you compare this return to the 10 year return offered for National Saving Certificate (NSC), return from government bond looks very attractive.

The third benefit of buying government bonds is that they have nil credit risk. Technically nil credit risk can be debated, but we can expect that the government of India will not default on its obligations as it has never done the same in past. The absence of credit risk makes these bonds an attractive investment option.

Now the most important question, “How can these bonds be bought?” The first requirement to buy these bonds is that you need to have a demat account. There is no need to open a separate demat account for these bonds. Primary dealers authorized by RBI provide facility to buy government securities. The list of primary dealers is available on the website of RBI. You need to check with these primary dealers about the facility that they provide to buy government bonds. Some online portals are also available which provide this facility.

Last but not the least, should you buy these bonds? Government bonds are safe and are currently offering good return option for long term. However, investments in these bonds are taxable and you need to check post tax return. Even if we consider post tax return, these bonds are looking attractive at the current yield to maturity return.

(Vivek Sharma has worked for 17 years in the stock market, debt market and banking. He is a post graduate in Economics and MBA in Finance. He writes on personal finance and economics and is invited as an expert on personal finance shows.)



vivek shah

3 years ago

Thanks for the information about attractive Govt Bonds. Would appreciate if you could inform as where can I find the list of such bonds and their maturity dates.


vivek sharma

In Reply to vivek shah 3 years ago

please check website during business hours.

vivek shah

In Reply to vivek sharma 3 years ago

Thanx buddy

Milind Chitnis

3 years ago

Even if a small investor decides to invest in gilts, how does he go about buying these & more importantly selling them if the need arises in interm 2o years?

Vinay Joshi

3 years ago

Dear Mr. Vivek Sharma,

Never ever suggest this idea to retail investors! That too in the ongoing scenario! Even HNI are scary.

What is 9.75% after 20yrs in 2032? Who can lock? For what? Does this amount to 'PRUDENT' an investment?

As a matter of fact the yield on 10yr benchmark grew to 9.25%.

Are you aware that rise in bond yields have depreciated 45KCR of banks bond holding & they will have to set aside money to cover M2M loses.

Do you know the highest paper 12.23%, cash management bill, 28 days offered! Amt 11KCR! Mon19. Tues 20, 12KCR redemption of 1998 bonds. Sept 3, 46KCR redemption, borrowing which will be at still higher yield & BUT who will be buying bonds? Markets least interested.

Can retail investors go thro' to get it? How?

Indicators suggest that call money 10.2%, 10YG-Sec 8.79% at 86.82, interbank overnight 10.38%, NSE-MIBOR[FX] 10.36 et al. Can retail investors take a call on these aspects of 'TREASURY' evaluations? Sooner the yields will be lower. Treasuries also averse.




In Reply to Vinay Joshi 3 years ago

Dear Mr. Joshi,

1) Why are we confusing money market 'treasury' instruments with a 20 year term investment? 12.23% for 91 days would really mean nothing when compared with 9% over 20 years.

2) Retail investors do not need to bother themselves about over night call rates. Their problem is to seek decent return commensurate with the risk.

3) What is wrong with 9% plus risk free return? & that too over a 20 year period. It makes perfect sense for risk averse savers/investors.

Vinay Joshi

In Reply to Nilesh KAMERKAR 3 years ago

Dear Mr. Nilesh Kamerkar,

The author of the article is not answering, he can't & YOU state that 20yr gilts are best bet!

In the first place i've said 12.23% is for 28days bond & PL explain to me 12.23% instead of 9.75%.

What is your understanding of gilts? What is meant by "FREE RETURN"? 20yr period!

What 'PERFECT' sense it makes? Can you exemplify?

Await your answer, if any.



In Reply to Vinay Joshi 3 years ago

Dear Mr. Vinay Joshi,

Here we go . . .

1) Please read again, have not said, 20yr G-Sec is the best bet.

2) 12.23% is for 28 days only & not 12.23% per annum for 20 years.
Thus not comparable.

3) It is not FREE RETURN, but,
RISK FREE RETURN because GSECs are issued by GOI, they enjoy highest credit rating among debt issues here.

4) My understanding of 20 YR GILTs is it being a 20 year bond issued by GOI if bought at yesterdays prices (21/8/2013) would have fetched 9% plus.

5) Why it makes perfect sense: It makes perfect sense for someone who is risk averse and not for everyone.

Life Insurance: HDFC Life Child Plan Erodes 96% of Investment!

Plan sold to senior citizen!

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