As prepared for delivery
Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Justice Systems
Committee on Criminal justice
Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction
Becky Scott, Bureau Chief of Facility Operations
Joseph Antonelli, Acting Associate Commissioner of Budget
Management and Planning
City Council Oversight Hearing-
Preventing Recidivism for Individuals with Mental Illness
Good Afternoon Speaker Johnson and Chairpersons Powers, Lancman, and Ayala and members of the Committee on Justice Systems and the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction. I am Becky Scott, the Bureau Chief of Facility Operations with the Department of Correction (DOC). I am joined by my colleague, Joseph Antonelli, Acting Associate Commissioner of Budget Management and Planning.
Before reading my testimony, I would like to acknowledge two recent deaths that occurred in our facilities. The first was of a young transgender woman, Layleen Polanco, and the second was of an older man who passed away in the ICU of Bellevue Hospital while under doctor’s care. I would like to extend my condolences to both of their families and loved ones, as well as to the LGBTQI community, during this difficult time. We take these matters extremely seriously and the Department is committed to providing updates to the Council and the public with additional details as they emerge. I appreciate the Council’s understanding that there is not much that can be said with specificity about either case at this time.
I further want to acknowledge that the Department understands that the lack of information in the death of Layleen Polanco is painful and frustrating for her family and friends. Layleen’s family deserves answers and we are working with partners in the Bronx DA’s office and at the Department of Investigation to provide her family with accurate information as quickly as possible. While this matter is still under investigation, we have not found evidence of violence or foul play contributed to her tragic death.
Safety is this Department’s number one priority, which includes safely housing individuals according to their gender identity. We are proud to be known as a national leader in transgender housing practices and remain committed to working with advocates, and this Council, to continue to provide safe and appropriate care for transgender individuals in our custody. As the investigation continues, we remain committed to treating Layleen Polanco’s memory, and family, with respect. Once again, we will share more information about this incident as we receive it.
On behalf of Commissioner Brann, I thank you for including the Department of Correction in today’s important discussion on serious mental illness and recidivism. The Department recognizes that preventing future recidivism begins by providing mental health support and services to individuals while they are in our care. We are proud to partner with Health and Hospitals’ Correctional Health Services to provide health and mental health services across our facilities. In addition to health care services, the Department also partners with a number of program providers to afford access to programming that enhances behavioral coping skills, supports anger management, addresses substance use, and encourages productive and prosocial behavior. It is the department’s goal to address the needs of the whole person while in our custody, which includes providing varying levels of mental health support depending on the need.
For individuals in need of enhanced support, the Department also runs several specialized housing units for individuals with more acute mental health concerns as well as those with serious mental illness.
Mental Health Units
Although all individuals have access to mental health providers, certain individuals may require structured support and more frequent observation. For that population, the individual runs Mental Observation units (MOs). MO units operate under the guidance of a multi-disciplinary team of unit-based mental health providers who conduct daily rounds, provide group programing and individual psychotherapy and also oversee medication treatment. MO units are not punitive and afford the same out-of-cell time as General Population units.
For individuals with serious mental illness who require intensive support but who do not require hospitalization, the Department works in conjunction with CHS to operate the Program for Accelerating Clinical Effectiveness, known as PACE. PACE focuses on enhancing coping skills, improving communication abilities, and promoting insight and competency in managing one’s mental illness and emotions and behavior. CHS advises the Department on what individuals are suited for PACE placement based on their clinical need.
The Department recognizes that individuals with serious mental illness do not belong in a 23-hour lock-in setting. Since 2016, the Department has eliminated punitive segregation for individuals with serious mental illness and has since housed individuals with guilty adjudications for serious infractions in restrictive units with therapeutic support. Following an adjudication, CHS performs a thorough evaluation to the individual to determine his or her fitness for punitive segregation. If CHS deems the individual is not fit for PSEG, they may be subsequently assigned to units known as CAPS or RHU.
The Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) is a housing unit that provides intensive mental health treatments for individuals with serious mental illness who have been adjudicated for a serious infraction but do not need to be hospitalized. Like PACE, CAPS units are staffed by both DOC and CHS personnel who support residents by helping them enhance their coping skills, improve their communication skills, and develop insight and competency in managing their mental illness as well as their emotions and behavior.
Restrictive Housing units (RHU) provide mental health treatment and programming for incarcerated individuals who have been adjudicated and found guilty of a violent grade 1 infraction, but who do not have serious mental illness. This incentive based housing operates in 3 levels, gradually providing individuals with more time out of cell based on their participation in mental health programming and by displaying positive behavior. Due to the comparatively small population of individuals in RHU at our female facility, the RHU in the female facility operates at Level 3, affording all individuals with up to 7 hours lock-out. Individuals in RHU are afforded 3 hours mental health programming from CHS every week day, including group therapy and art therapy.
Safe and inclusive housing options are part of an evolving conversation about how best to meet a wide spectrum of needs. There is no one size fits all approach, the department has worked tirelessly with CHS to ensure that we provide a responsive plan of action for incarcerated individuals with significant mental health needs.
In addition to providing appropriate therapeutic housing, the Department also recognizes maintaining a robust workforce of well-trained trained staff is critically important to supporting those entrusted to our care.
Providing Mental Health Training for Staff
In 2014, the department began Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in its Academy curriculum. The training is conducted over an eight hour day and builds mental health literacy by training staff to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness. By February 2019, the department trained over 7,200 staff members. In August 2016, the department began offering the training to its incarcerated population and through February 2019 has successfully trained over 800 individuals while in custody.
The Department began Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) at AMKC in July 2015, and has since expanded the trainings to five jails. The forty-hour training aims to develop a first-responder understanding of mental illness and intervention skills in order to achieve safe resolutions to mental health crises. To date, approximately 725 uniform staff have completed the training alongside 206 NYC Health & Hospitals staff who provide health services in DOC facilities. DOC plans to expand CIT trainings to RNDC this year.
Commissary Account Overview
In regards to the legislation being discussed at today’s hearing, the Department supports the spirit of Intro 903 and is eager to work with Council, and potentially other agencies or community groups, to improve formerly incarcerated New Yorkers’ access to their commissary funds following their discharge from custody. Although we have some concerns about the operational feasibility of all the requirements of Intro 903, we agree this is an important area for reform. We look forward to working with the Council in the coming weeks to better connect formerly incarcerated individuals with nearly $3.7M in unclaimed commissary funds held by the Department.
Thank you again for inviting us to discuss these important matters, and we welcome any questions you have at this time.