The number of New Yorkers in the city’s infamous jail system hit what Mayor Bill de Blasio called an “historic” low in April as incarcerated people were released to ease concerns over social distancing. But jailed New Yorkers with mental health issues are being left behind by the city’s coronavirus-spurred decarceration efforts, further exacerbating their ongoing over-representation in the criminal justice system.
As of May 18, half of all jailed New Yorkers have a mental illness—a startling seven percentage-point leap in the representation of neurodiverse people in the city’s jails since New York City’s March 16 lockdown, found a May 21 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Neurodiverse incarcerated people—called “Brad H” detainees by the city—were less likely to be released during that two-month period than their peers without a mental health diagnosis. Half of general population detainees (51 percent, or 1,580 people) were released from the jail, yet only 36 percent of Brad H detainees (851 people) were permitted such relief.
The cut in the total number of jailed New Yorkers is striking: In the span of two months, the total population fell from 5,471 people to 3,943—the first time it has dipped below 4,000 since 1946. “This dramatic reduction in the detainee population is a significant development which has allowed us to increase social distancing within our facilities as we deploy all available measures to fight the COVID-19 virus,” said Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Cynthia Brann in a press release.
That’s contested, though. “Jail is inherently not a place where you can socially distance. It’s just not built that way,” Caitlin Miller, an attorney with Legal Aid Society’s parole revocation defense unit, told CNN. “It was inevitable that coronavirus was going to get to Rikers, and once it did, it would be a complete disaster. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”
Trapped inside, neurodiverse people are a major category of COVID-19 victims. In fact, they comprised half of all those confirmed to have COVID-19 (35 out of 68 people) and slightly more than half of asymptomatics exposed to the virus (522 out of 922 people), as of May 20.
The city’s DOC already has a troubled history with its management of people with mental health issues, as Filter has reported. Incarcerated patients are frequently obstructed from attending their psychiatric appointments, with the majority missed because corrections officers simply fail to bring them to the clinic. For three years, trans women were forced to decide between accessing medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, or being housed in a gender-affirming unit.
Pre-COVID-19, the city was looking into moving neurodiverse inmates off Rikers Island. About a year ago in March 2019, the Correctional Health Department began considering contractors to construct a new specialty hospital to provide “therapeutic housing units” for incarcerated mental health patients.
Photograph of a Rikers Island “welcome” sign by Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress/Public Domain