NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - Lawmakers at a special oversight hearing Thursday pressed the theory that skyrocketing violence on Rikers Island is related to a soaring number of inmates being diagnosed with mental problems.
As WCBS 880's Rich Lamb reported, public advocate Letitia James sharply questioned Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett regarding the deaths of two Rikers Island inmates, one of which died in an overheated cell. The other died after self-mutilation.
New York City Council Considers Cause Of Rise Of Violence In City Jails
"What failed? What happened? Why did not those two individuals get assistance, medical assistance, particularly mental health services," James said.
"Both of these patients were in the mental observation unit, so they had diagnoses of mental illness," countered Basset.
"But clearly commissioner, something failed," James added.
"I agree with you, something failed and as you know both of these cases are being litigated in the courts. I consider these tragic and unnecessary deaths," Basset said.
In February, a mentally ill former Marine died inside a 101-degree cell. A city official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the AP then that Jerome Murdough "basically baked to death.'' His family, who said the veteran suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit.
Last month, the Associated Press detailed the September 2013 death of 39-year-old inmate Bradley Ballard, whose family said was diagnosed with schizophrenia who died after sexually mutilating himself while locked up alone for seven days. His death was recently ruled a homicide.
Basset said her department is intent on finding out what the failures were.
Joseph Ponte, who started as head of the nation's second-largest jail system in April, was also expected to provide specifics Thursday on how he'll "turn the tide" on Rikers Island.
Ponte told city lawmakers at a budget hearing last week the Department of Correction is "deeply troubled'' and stressed that no one individual can change the system.
Between 2010 and 2013, use-of-force incidents have increased by 59 percent, from 1,871 to 2,977; slashing and stabbing incidents doubled, from 34 to 58; and assaults on staff jumped by 30 percent, from 500 to 646, according to department statistics.
At the same time, the number of inmates with a mental health diagnoses has soared as the jail population has declined, accounting for about 24 percent of the nearly 14,000 inmates in 2007 to about 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 inmates today, Ponte testified last week.
Mayor Bill de Blasio last week announced the formation of a task force charged with rethinking how the correction system treats the mentally ill - both in and out of jail.
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