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Prison Policy Initiative: Incarceration is Not a Solution to Mental Illness

By Peter Wagner

The Rebellious Law Conference at Yale in late February sponsored a lively panel on how the state oppresses those with disabilities. The new welfare law denies the disabled benefits. Despite the fact that prisons cost more and are less effective than treatment, state governments have slashed mental health budgets to build more prisons. The result has been more public demonization and oppression of the mentally ill.

The Rebellious Lawyering 2000 Conference was held at Yale Law School on February 25-27. The opening address was by UCLA School of Law Professor Gerald P. Lopez, author of Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice. The keynote address was by Peter Neufeld, co-founder and director of “The Innocence Project,” which currently represents more than two hundred prisoners seeking post-conviction release through DNA testing. Four WNEC students attended the conference.

The theme of the Rebellious Lawyering conference was “Innovative Advocacy for a New Millennium.” Explicitly or indirectly, all of the speakers talked about why lawyers and law students need to think “outside the box” of traditional legal work, be it in challenging oppressive laws or challenging traditional — and sometimes ineffective — methods of standard leftist organizing. All the speakers stressed the importance of serving our clients, an unfortunately radical concept in the legal profession.

Early on the afternoon of the 2nd day, a “Disability and the State” panel discussion was held.

Russ Overby of the Tennessee Justice Center described his work trying to get disabled clients exempted from the welfare and workfare requirements of Tennessee. Overby and Heather Barr of New York City’s Urban Justice Center explained how the welfare program’s purpose is to frustrate people so they will leave the welfare rolls, and not to help them get jobs. For example, the welfare office will require a large number of appointments before benefits can be received, and the workfare requirements of 40 hours of “volunteer” work do not take into account the difficulties the poor have with transportation and childcare.

A variety of different studies were cited by Overby, showing that 40% of families on welfare have a long term functional disability; another that 23% had psychiatric disorders and a third said that 75% had slight to severe mental health problems. According to Overby, welfare clients are reluctant to disclose their medical history to the State, so the exact number of people with disabilities who are on welfare is unknown.

But the lack of data is not the problem with the workfare requirements. While federal law does allow a number of people with documented disabilities to be exempted from the workfare requirements and 5 year limit on benefits, even the National Governors Association concluded that the number of people with disabilities outstrips the number allowed to retain their benefits.

Russ Overby criticized politicians for claiming that because the welfare rolls are down, that poverty must have been defeated. To Overby, that’s “like curing the measles by painting over the spots. The research about the numbers leaving the rolls does not address the question of where those families go.”

“Rikers Island is the largest psychiatric facility in the country” began Heather Barr of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, where she does advocacy for people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. Barr summed up the state policy since the 1970s: “we demolished the mental health system at the same time we skipped merrily down the path of criminalizing everything.”

Years ago, behavior that would have been considered annoying, such public urination, is now treated as a criminal offense — including in a city like New York without public toilets. Other mentally ill people are arrested for public drinking or panhandling. Barr reported that when she sees arrest reports that read “resisting arrest and disorderly conduct” the likely truth is that a person was talking to himself and the police told him to move along and he didn’t. And like the rest of the prison system, there is a general exemption for white people when it comes to ending up in prison. As Barr pointed out, behavior that would land a Black or Latino in prison will often not lead to prison for a white person.

Rikers Island holds 20,000 prisoners, or 130,000 over the course of a year. Around 20% of those have a serious mental illness, and 80% have substance abuse problems. The Federal DOJ estimates that 16% of all prisoners are mentally ill, and NY State estimates 10% of its prisoners are mentally ill. But Barr takes those numbers with “serious skepticism” as they count only those who have been diagnosed and receive treatment, whereas many are ignored by the system.

New York State has quite openly replaced it’s mental health hospitals with prisons. [See Chart 1] Ms. Barr believes that many of the people released from the closed state hospitals are the same people who are now incarcerated in the state prisons. When the hospitals were closed, the state merely released the patients into the streets without building community centers or other resources. Ms. Barr also warned that deinstitutionalization is not something confined to the 1960s or 1970s, but rather continues today, with 500 hospital beds closed in New York State last year. At the same time, New York allocated $360 million for 2 new supermax prisons with psychiatric wings.

To read the full report, click here.

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