Mentally Ill Prisoner Put In Solitary Confinement Despite New York Law


[Editor’s note: This story has been updated and names have been changed to protect the subject’s identity. 

Over the last eight years, 23-year-old Arnold* has been hospitalized for mental health issues 13 times. But his problems started at least seven years earlier. When he was eight years old, doctors gave him the first of what would become a long list of diagnoses: ADHD; PTSD from childhood abuse; Bipolar disorder; Bipolar disorder with psychotic features; even delusional disorder, although they weren’t 100 percent sure of that one, according to his mother, Lynn*.

His most recent evaluation, conducted inside the New York State Correctional System, suggested he may have antisocial personality disorder. But Lynn is suspicious of that diagnosis. For one thing, it doesn’t take into account the delusions that she says have gotten worse since he was locked up a year ago. “He believes that there is something in his skin — that he is contagious and you don’t even have to be in direct proximity to him, like if you scratch your head, he believes that that means that he has transmitted parasites to you.”

Arnold has a demonstrated, if not clear, history of mental illness. It’s part of the reason he ended up in prison in the first place. He was homeless, hungry, and ordered Chinese food; when it came, he punched the delivery guy instead of paying. Arnold was convicted of robbery, and ordered to attend probation and mental health appointments. He missed those appointments and was locked up for one to three years for violating his probation.

Inside, he had eight months of good behavior before he defied a prison guard, walking away from her when she told him to stay where he was. That act of rebellion earned him a beatdown and 18 months in solitary confinement, or the SHU. (It stands for Special Housing Unit.) After Prisoners Legal Services of New York took Arnold’s case, they were able to get that sentence reduced to six months of solitary confinement.

“Today is day 87,” Lynn told the Voice on Wednesday. That means her son has spent about three months in solitary confinement so far, but with his history of psychological problems he probably should never have been put there in the first place.

Study after study, lawsuit after lawsuit has shown that solitary confinement is especially harmful for patients with mental illness—”The mental equivalent of placing an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe,” as one judge put it. New York state itself acknowledged that fact when it passed the SHU Exclusion Law, which mandates that all prisoners receive a mental health assessment before they are placed in an isolated unit.

Under New York state law, inmates who have mental illness are supposed to be placed in a mental health facility instead of a segregated unit, except in the very rare cases in which it is clear they pose a threat to other inmates’ safety. Even in those special cases the law requires two hours of therapy outside of the cell everyday. According to Lynn, her son has only been given one hour outside his cell every month.

When contacted by the Voice, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services said Arnold did not meet the standards for SHU exclusion—he wasn’t mentally ill enough to be exempt—but he added that Arnold is scheduled to be released this Sunday, September 28.

This news came as a surprise to Arnold’s mother, Lynn. When the Voice informed Lynn on Thursday that her son was set to be released on Sunday, she was unsure whether to believe us. “That is total news to me,” said Lynn, who has spent weeks been waging a campaign to get her son released from solitary confinement. (Lynn later confirmed the news came as a surprise to Arnold’s lawyer too, who was unsure why his sentence was reduced a second time from six months to just three.)

Her disbelief turned quickly to happiness (“I feel like rejoicing”), and as quickly to anxiety about how her son will fare back among other prisoners and guards, if the system is still refusing to acknowledge his psychological problems. “We want, still, his mental health treated,” Lynn said.

*Names have been changed