The Corrections Department says any unusual behavior by inmates or attempts to hurt themselves are reported to mental health staff. A spokesman for the Office of Mental Health said “inmates reporting psychiatric symptoms are taken seriously and assessed carefully.”
Donna Currao said prison staff ignored her and her husband, Tommy Currao, when he attempted suicide at least 10 times over the course of 10 months in solitary confinement. According to his wife, Currao had been sent to solitary after testing positive for heroin.
Currao’s first suicide attempt in solitary was in July 2012, when he tried to overdose on heroin. That October, guards found him attempting to hang himself in his cell. While on suicide watch after he tried again to overdose, Currao broke open his hearing aid and used the metal inside to cut his wrists. (He received a bill of $500 for “destruction of state property,” Donna said.)
Both the Corrections Department and the Office of Mental Health declined to comment on Currao’s case.
According to the Corrections Department, an inmate can be returned to solitary confinement after being on suicide watch if they’re cleared by the Office of Mental Health. In 2011, 14 percent of the 8,242 inmates released from New York’s mental health crisis units were sent to solitary confinement.
After just three weeks in isolation, Donna noticed a dramatic change in her husband. He “was withdrawn, all he would do is apologize,” Donna said. He was no longer laughing with her, playing cards or chatting with other inmates. She watched him drop from 240 pounds to 160.
Currao stopped writing the almost daily letters he’d sent for 13 years. When Donna persuaded him to start again, as a way to escape, he talked of an overwhelming sadness.
Donna says she repeatedly called the prison. She faxed them copies of Currao’s suicidal letters. But he remained in isolation.
“I don’t know if they don’t want to spend the money, or think it’s a joke,” she said. “They still thought he wanted out of solitary. He wanted out of the picture is what he wanted.”
A survey by the state’s independent oversight committee found many family members who said prison officials didn’t listen to concerns about inmates’ psychological wellbeing. None of the mental health files reviewed by the oversight committee contained information from family members about a prisoner’s psychiatric history.
The Office of Mental Health says it’s working on creating new procedures to “insure that the call is responded to promptly and in a manner that addresses the family member’s concern as best as possible.”
Prisoner rights advocates are also working on a new legislative proposal to ensure that mentally ill inmates get the treatment they need. A coalition of groups is drafting a new bill, which would expand protections from solitary for inmates with mental illness, and put a limit on solitary confinement sentences for any prisoner, whether or not they’re diagnosed with a disorder.
“Even though there’s a law that says you can’t do this for people with serious mental illness, it hasn’t stopped [Corrections] from using solitary,” said Parish. “I think they just replaced it with lower-level tickets instead of some of the most serious ones.”
In May, Donna’s persistence in trying to get her husband treatment finally saw results. Currao met with a psychologist, and was diagnosed with “serious” anti-social personality disorder and dysthymic disorder. He was moved out of solitary confinement and into one of the 170 Residential Mental Health Treatment beds created under the recent law.
Currao “seems to be 1,000 times better” since entering treatment, Donna said. He talks about wanting to become a counselor when he’s released.
But Donna wonders why it took so many suicide attempts and nearly a year of pressure to get her husband a proper diagnosis and the treatment he was legally owed. “They are not enforcing this law,” she said. “Why do we have to fight so hard to get them evaluated?”
Hall’s family is left with the same questions as they search for answers about his death. “How many more people have to die?” Shaleah asked. “They need help. Locking them away is hurting them more.”
Stories like Amir’s should never happen, but under current state policies, more inmates in New York could experience the same treatment. Sign this petition to tell New York not to place the mentally ill in solitary confinement.
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