New Records Reveal Revolving Door for People with Mental Illness in Erie County Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
April 14, 2015 9:30 am

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NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union this morning released the second in a series of reports documenting prisoner conditions at two Erie County jails. The NYCLU won the release of the reports following a two-year legal battle with the county, and the documents reveal that while the county has made considerable progress in its treatment of people in the jails with mental health conditions, the county lacks a strategy to address the revolving door where people cycle in and out of jail because they only get mental health care while they are incarcerated.

“After years of neglect and abuse in Erie County’s jails, as well as costly litigation, the county has clearly adopted serious reforms to the way it handles the people it incarcerates who have mental illness. But these reports also illustrate the severity of the problem – thousands of people with mental illness are locked up in jail in Erie County every year,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “People shouldn’t have to go to jail to get mental health care, but that’s what is happening in Erie County.”

For years, Erie County has aggressively resisted investigations and subsequent legal challenges by the state and federal government regarding inhumane and unconstitutional conditions at its two county jails. Investigations and legal complaints initiated by the U.S. Justice Department and the State Commission of Corrections have included allegations of inadequate medical care, violent treatment by prison personnel, and poor efforts to protect suicidal prisoners.

A two-year investigation by the Justice Department found evidence of staff-prisoner violence and sexual misconduct between staff and prisoners, along with an inadequate monitoring system to prevent suicide at the facilities. Since 2003, 10 inmates have committed suicide at both sites, and at least 16 additional inmates have attempted it.

In 2012, the NYCLU sued the county for the public release of compliance reports filed every six months following a 2009 lawsuit brought by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The reports are filed by physicians hired to monitor the county’s compliance with reforms to improve conditions at the facilities. The reports released today focus on mental health issues.

“The county has clearly made significant strides in its response to people with mental illness while they are incarcerated, but that falls apart when they are leaving jail,” Stoughton said. “The reports suggest a lack of investment in discharge planning, and the high rates of mental illness among people admitted to the jails suggests that people suffer from lack of access to services on the outside, are re-arrested, and get locked up again. The bottom line is that jails are an expensive and ineffective way to treat the mentally ill. The county needs to start looking at solutions that divert people suffering from mental illness away from the criminal justice system and into effective treatment programs.”

To read the first installment of reports, visit

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