The Epoch Times: Help, Not Incarceration

NEW YORK—Anthony Cruz is a different man now that he has been locked up several times.

Before serving his 10-year sentence in New York state prisons for manslaughter in the first degree he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder and depression, among other mental health conditions. Cruz spent a total of three years in solitary confinement, but he said he was denied help from mental health staff in prison. Unless he had suicidal thoughts, he wasn’t allowed to talk to a psychiatrist.

Since Cruz was released on parole two years ago, it’s been difficult finding a steady job with a felony conviction on his record. This summer, he received notice from the city that his family would have to relocate from their current homeless shelter location in the Bronx. Then, his wife’s temporary teaching job ended, and her weeks of job searching didn’t yield results. To cope with the stress, Cruz turned to MDMA, a drug he was addicted to before. “I was going through so much,” Cruz explained.

At a regular visit to the parole office for a drug urine test, Cruz was caught with the drug in his system.

He had a panic attack upon hearing that he’d have to go to jail at Rikers Island for his parole violation. “I was wailing and crying, telling the parole officers that I didn’t want to go back to a cell.”

Cruz suffered several more panic attacks while inside. He couldn’t sleep being around so many people. He was reliving his deepest fear.

Local jail reform advocate Five Mualimm-ak, with the Incarcerated Nation Corporation, sought to get Cruz treatment for his drug dependence and other mental health needs, but nothing came of the requests.

Across the country, people with mental illness and substance abuse are repeatedly cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimate that more than 1.26 million mentally ill adults are detained in the country’s jails and prisons. Some cities are trying to change this statistic through programs that offer some of these nonviolent offenders a way out of incarceration, and a chance to improve their lives.


New York City Options
In New York City, over a dozen alternative-to-incarceration programs are currently run by nonprofit organizations. Eligibility criteria varies from program to program.

At Fortune Society, for example, staff will screen cases for people who are likely to face a jail sentence and who can benefit from their services, said Fortune Society President JoAnne Page. Aside from offenders with substance abuse or mental illness, Fortune also runs a program for the general population, diverting about 300 people each year.

Unlike in Seattle and San Antonio, offenders in New York City still have to appear in court, with the judge or district attorney having final say over the person’s fate.

Oftentimes, placement into a program is negotiated as part of a plea agreement at court. The courts usually stipulate that the offender stays completely abstinent throughout the program’s duration, otherwise he or she would face prosecution or sentencing.

Because of the strict requirement, some have ended up sentenced to upstate prisons when they relapse.

“Our clients in alternative-to-incarceration programs are often given an impossibly short window of opportunity to get clean,” said Elizabeth Keeney, managing director of social work at the legal services provider, The Bronx Defenders, whose attorneys have represented such clients at court.

Addiction should be understood as a chronic illness that needs lifelong attention, like hypertension or diabetes, Keeney added. “Instead our clients are demonized for what is characterized as personal weakness.”

Page said New York City could benefit from earlier intervention, beginning with the police. “For someone who is mentally ill and disruptive, police don’t have much of an option other than bringing them to jail,” she said. She recommended a community center where people can get treated without being arrested—like San Antonio’s.

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a task force to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness and substance abuser problems within the city’s jails. Over the summer, the city also rolled out a new program, called Court-based Intervention Resource Team (CIRT), to remove people from Rikers who need mental health or substance abuse treatment, while their cases await trial. It remains to be seen whether judges are willing to place offenders into the program.

In the meantime, Cruz is still struggling to recover post-incarceration. He wants to enroll in culinary school, because cooking keeps him calm.

“I love cooking seafood and lasagna,” Cruz said.

He hopes to become an advocate for ending the excessive use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. “So I can fight for the brothers who are still suffering inside.”

By Annie Wu

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