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L.J., New York

In May 2002, Disability Advocates, Inc. filed a lawsuit against the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the Department of Corrections (DOCS), alleging that:

prisoners with mental illness subject to DOCS disciplinary sanctions are frequently placed into [SHUs,]…psychological punishing twenty-three hour isolated confinement housing areas…. Prisoners in [SHUs]…have extremely limited opportunities to participate in any form of mental health therapy. Often the only contact with mental health staff occurs during rounds when OMH staff walk through the housing unit and may stop and speak to prisoners from through the bars at the front of their cell or through a slot in the solid door of their cell, all within earshot of neighboring cells and in the presence of a cellmate in the double-celled SHUs.593

Not surprisingly, many of the seriously mentally ill in these units routinely bounce back and forth between the Central New York Psychiatric Center and prison SHUs. The story of twenty five-year old L.J., who currently resides in Sing Sing prison, is illustrative.

L.J. has been hearing voices since he was a child. Prisoners Legal Services lawyers told Human Rights Watch he has a history of lead poisoning and had to be schooled in special education classes due to “ serious intellectual limitations” and emotional disturbances.594 Since incarcerated he has been in and out of the Central New York Psychiatric Center. He was arrested in Rochester, when he was nineteen years old, for selling crack cocaine, and received a sentence of three-and-a-half to ten years. He claims to have gone to school for six years, but also thinks he stayed in school until he was twenty-one, two years after he was sent to prison. He claims not to have a mental illness, yet oftentimes forgets to bathe, and in the past has taken Thorazine. Currently, he is refusing to take his medications. Over the past six years, L.J. has been in several prisons and mental health centers: Elmira, the Central New York Psychiatric Center, Cayuga, Elmira again, Great Meadow, and Sing Sing.595 During his interview with Human Rights Watch, L.J. was clearly confused, his body odor was powerful, suggesting he had not washed in several days, he rocked back and forth continually, and his eyes stared, unblinking and unfocused, throughout the meeting.

L.J. says he was sent to the SHU

for fighting some dude. They put me in the box. It made me feel upset. I don’t think I belong in the box. I started passing out. I hit my head a couple times — on a brick wall. I started talking to myself. Often. Softly. “Wass up?” “What’re you doing?” “How you doing?” I didn’t want to take any showers. I just ain’t go to the shower. The correctional officer asked me why a couple times. I said I don’t feel like going to the shower. He walked away.

Nearby prisoners started teasing him about his smell, shouting down the corridor that he stank. “I stopped talking,” L.J. reported.

In 1998, L.J. had to be removed to the suicide observation cell and to the Central New York Psychiatric Center, for stabilization. According to Prisoner Legal Services attorneys, he has “repeatedly deteriorated in the SHU only to be cycled out for limited periods to the mental health satellite unit, where he would be stabilized, often on medications, and then returned directly to the SHU cell, for the cycle to start over again.”596 Back in prison, L.J. has stopped taking his medications again, and is tormented by voices. They are, he says, “irritating voices, like somebody coming for me. Whispering voices,” that say they are going to kill him. “I want to get rid of the voices. The voices are getting to me,” L.J. declared. Then, in the contradictory fashion characteristic of many mentally ill, “I think I need help. I don’t need no medications. They say I need it. I don’t know — they’re lying.”

593 Disability Advocates Inc., v. New York State Office of Mental Health, Complaint,No. 02 CV 4002. (S.D.N.Y., May 28, 2002), p. 10.

594 Information provided Human Rights Watch by Prisoners Legal Services in correspondence dated October 24, 2002.

595 Human Rights Watch interview with L.J., Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York, June 11, 2002.

596 Written correspondence from Prisoners Legal Services to Human Rights Watch, October 24, 2002.

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October 2003