Mental illness at Rikers an alarming trend

Rikers Island, shown in this 2011 file photo, Rikers Island, shown in this 2011 file photo, housed a mentally ill inmate who allegedly "baked to death," according to an AP report. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

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City Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte this week sketched out a deeply troubling picture of Rikers Island as a place where violence is rising ominously while a surging population of mentally ill inmates threatens to overwhelm an undertrained staff.

Ponte told the City Council that:

Use of force by correction officers on prisoners rose 59 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Use of force by prisoners on correction officers jumped 30 percent during that time.

These trends have to stop.

But a solution won't come easy -- because Rikers has slowly turned into the default repository for people with mental illness. The effect is a disaster in slow motion.

On the same day Ponte offered his remarks, the city's medical examiner ruled as a homicide the 2013 death of a mentally ill and diabetic inmate who was found in his cell -- sexually mutilated -- after seven days on Rikers.

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While the overall jail population has declined since 2007, the proportion of mentally ill prisoners on Rikers has soared from 24 percent to 40 percent.

Nobody is well served by that development -- not the mentally ill people who are locked up, not the Rikers staff whose duty it is to house them, and not city taxpayers who underwrite this grossly flawed system.

Ponte told the council he wants more training for staff and wants to put more mentally ill inmates in jailhouse treatment programs. We hope the city provides him with the resources for that.

But the problems on Rikers Island won't end until the city does what virtually no other American city has ever done -- find a humane and effective way to treat all mentally ill people within our population.

Give Mayor Bill de Blasio credit for wanting to try.

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He appointed a task force this week to figure out how to get people with mental illness out of the jails and into solid medical and mental health programs. Godspeed to that mission. A truly efficient mental health program would make the city safer and more compassionate.

Meantime, stabilizing Rikers would be a great first step.

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