Target: Joseph Ponte, Corrections Commissioner at Rikers Island in New York
Goal: Halt violence against mentally ill inmates
Prison is a brutal place for those suffering from mental illness. Yet, a recently completed four-month long study by the New York Times suggests the issue is worse than we feared. The results present an alarming illustration of the rampant violence at Rikers Island, the second largest jail in the United States. Disturbingly, the report reveals that inmates with mental health issues, a growing population at Rikers, bear a disproportionate burden of the violence, often an overzealous response by those lacking proper training to deal with mental illness.
In 2013, serious injuries to inmates caused by corrections officers doubled, with inmates with mental conditions making up three fourths of the injuries in the study. After one man failed to make a $250 bail for a domestic dispute, his attempt to hang himself, which was promptly interrupted by corrections officers, escalated quickly to a full scale beating. Instead of following procedure and notifying medical personnel, the four corrections officers repeatedly punched the handcuffed man, ultimately puncturing his bowel. His life in jeopardy, he had to undergo emergency surgery, and along with continuing pain, retains a thick, foot-long vertical scar on his abdomen.
The unfortunate reality is that the violence does hit both ways. Harsh conditions in the jail, from sudden hot to cold temperatures to prolonged isolation can be enough to push the soundest minds over the edge and can easily overwhelm those already suffering from mental conditions. Mentally ill inmates have been known to withdraw within themselves or lash out, splashing guards with liquid or worse, attacking corrections officers and civilian staff members. Still, many guards believe inmates with mental conditions fake symptoms in order to avoid being placed in solitary confinement.
Please the petition below to demand better training for staff to handle inmates with mental conditions and help ensure the safety of staff members and inmates alike.
Dear Commissioner Ponte,
I am writing in regards to the recent surge in violence between staff and inmates at Rikers Island. The parallel rise in both inmates with mental illnesses and the use of force on inmates during 2013 reveals a serious lack of preparedness on the part of staff to deal with inmates with mental conditions, which endangers staff members as well as inmates.
I urge you to institute mandatory training for staff members in order to ensure that in doing their job, no harm comes to them and that inmates’ safety is not violated. As 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates at Rikers Island suffer from mental disorders, this training is crucial to building awareness of this issue and starting to break this brutal cycle of violence. With your reputation for reform and your belief in using positive reinforcement to reduce violence, I take heart in knowing you regard this issue seriously, and hope that you may use your leadership to bring about change for the better at Rikers Island.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Bob Jagendorf via Wikimedia Commons