About two-thirds of the country’s juvenile inmates suffer from at least one mental illness. And yet the State of New York, which incarcerates around 800 youths at any given time, does not have even one full-time psychiatrist working in juvenile prisons.
The implications of this abysmal lack of mental health care are clear: kids who might be healthy members of society with adequate treatment could easily spend their lives in out and out of jail.
There are currently 17 part-time psychiatrists charged with caring for New York’s juvenile prison population. But according to one Family Court judge, “Those people turn over so quickly that there are often huge chunks of time when there is not even a contracted psychiatrist available to evaluate the youngster or provide needed follow-up services.”
The New York Times describes the current situation this way:
For now, then, the oversight of the mental health treatment of the young people in state facilities falls to several dozen psychologists who visit them for consultations, and staff members at the jails who run group therapy sessions despite often having no qualifications beyond a high school degree.
According to a recent report on New York’s juvenile prisons from the Department of Justice, this kind of short-term, disjointed mental health care means that inmates are often given several conflicting diagnoses, resulting in improper and confused medication and treatment.
Lawyers for the Legal Aid Society argue that, in the absence of adequate counseling services, prison officials rely heavily–and inappropriately–on physical restraints. One 16-year-old boy, who was diagnosed with moderate mental retardation, was placed in a state residential facility for five months before he received the mental health treatment that a judge had ordered he needed. During that time, the boy was “harassed, taunted, and restrained at least five times” by prison staff, lawyers said.
The Office of Children and Family Services says that it’s aware of the dearth of mental health professionals, and is in the process of a hiring a chief psychiatrist for juvenile prisons. But the problem of inadequate treatment for juvenile offenders stretches back for decades, and will not be fixed with one full-time psychiatrist for New York’s 800 detained minors.
“The system just isn’t equipped to deal with children with serious mental health issues,” said a Legal Aid Society lawyer. “We need to find another mechanism to treat those children.”