place for the mentally ill: Albany County Correctional
Facility.. Photo by John Whipple.
Mentally ill persons facing
criminal charges have been helped by an Albany County program
diverting them from jail to community-based treatment—but
the program’s funding is about to run out
By Travis Durfee
she met Louis Meunier last fall, Genevieve Plair wasn’t
doing so well on her own. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder
10 years earlier, Plair wasn’t keeping up with her medication
or her rent, and was frequently getting into disputes with
her landlord. The 33-year-old Albany resident says that
she was having difficulty taking care of herself, but an
even bigger problem was her denial of her troubles. Last
October, Plair’s situation got worse when she was evicted
from her apartment.
had a puppy and that puppy grew into a full-grown pit bull,”
she says, less in sentences than in bursts. “My landlord
never minded that I had the dog until it destroyed something.
He destroyed the door and they wanted to evict me because
the marshals came to put me out,” Plair continues. “I had
put everything in storage, I was just waiting because it
would have been easier for me—the less time I spent in a
shelter the better. I stayed in the apartment until the
marshals came, and when the marshals came they said ‘Ma’am,
there is another issue that hasn’t been dealt with,’ and
it was the warrant.”The warrant stemmed from Plair’s 1997
arrest for disorderly conduct, for which she never went
to court. “I thought the charge was expunged due to my illnesses,”
she explains. Instead, Plair was evicted from her apartment,
and subsequently arrested. She was looking at jail time,
but then she met Louis Meunier.
and his boss came to court and got me out of jail after
about a week,” Plair says. “They came and they waited all
day because I was like the last one seen. That meant a lot
to me, because they could have left and said ‘Oh, we can
do this another day,’ or something. They came like riding
in on their horse and I didn’t have any other option. They
said, ‘We’re freeing you,’ basically. So they waited around
all day and took me to the apartment, and explained the
program to me.”
The program is Albany County’s Mental Health Jail Diversion
Project, an experimental collaboration between the county’s
mental-health and criminal-justice systems that reroutes
mentally ill people from the county correctional facility
to community-based treatment and mental-health service providers
specific to their needs.
For example, a client facing six months in jail for disorderly
conduct could agree to six months of counseling. His or
her progress would be monitored by a caseworker and evaluated
by a judge. Successful completion of the program can lead
to the charge being removed from the individual’s record,
and can take as little as three months or last as long as
The new program, which is the first in New York state and
only the third in the country, took on its first client
in August 2002, but the program wasn’t fully implemented
until January 2003.
out on a limb, I would say that it is kind of a common problem
for people within the mental-health population, not responding
to things like appearance tickets,” says Meunier, the program’s
jail diversion coordinator. “It is not necessarily getting
in trouble again, it is just that contact with law enforcement
that ends up bringing about possible jail time.”
And jail is no place for the mentally ill, says Meunier.
“People with even moderate mental-health conditions can
have those conditions exacerbated in the correctional setting,”
he says. Inmates suffering from mental illness not only
can have their conditions worsened in jail due to isolation
and the lack of adequate care, but often are more susceptible
to intimidation and violence.
Though people with mental health needs often do not receive
adequate care in jail, that’s where more and more of them
are ending up, as the trend away from psychiatric institutionalization
in the day, people [with mental health problems] were brought
to psychiatric centers because nobody really knew what to
do with mental illness—nobody really knew how to treat it,”
says jail diversion project manager Marisa Beeble. “So it
was kind of like, ‘Well, we’ll just put them all together
and they’ll receive psychotherapy or see a psychiatrist
or a social worker.’ But those conditions were eventually
really inhumane, which translated into deinstitutionalization
where they decided to say ‘OK, we’re not treating these
people appropriately, so what we’re going to do is release
them into the community and treat them in the community.’”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
the average daily number of patients in U.S. state and county
mental hospitals in 1950 was 592,853. By 1994, that average
was down to 71,619.
happened was the community wasn’t prepared for the influx
of needs posed by these people,” Beeble says. “Over time,
these people started getting arrested, started getting in
trouble, and the state psych facilities, which just pushed
them out the door, no longer had the resources to serve
them. So over the past 50 years, they’ve been picked up
by the police and placed in jails.”
According to a 1999 study in Psychiatric Rehabilitation
Journal, the number of individuals suffering from mental
illnesses in jails throughout the country rose from 185,780
in 1955 to 481,393 in 1985. Albany County’s jail diversion
program began to address this trend, which was referred
to as transinstitutionalization.
Spanner: Louis Meunier. Photo
by John Whipple.
with funding all but dried up, the program is in jeopardy.
Initial funding was provided by the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration, a subsidiary of the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in the form
of an exploratory grant that expired in March. The program
is almost broke, and at least one key service provider says
it will fold in September should no new financial backing
The situation is even more troubling, say those involved
with the program, considering that it was not too long ago
that Albany County experienced the kind of worst-case-scenario
that showed the need to divert people with mental-health
needs from jail—the death of a mentally ill inmate in the
county’s correctional facility.
In the early morning hours on June 10, 1999, Gregory Lee
Richardson, a 42-year-old Brooklyn man who had a long history
of mental illness and had been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic,
was arrested after leading police on a high-speed chase
down the New York State Thruway. According to an investigation
by the New York State Commission of Correction, Richardson
evidenced many signs that he was mentally unfit prior to
his death in the Albany County Correctional Facility, but
attempts to offer him treatment came far too late.
Upon arrival at the Albany Police Department’s South Station
for booking early June 10, Richardson was noticably distressed:
Police reports state that the detainee was talking to himself,
crying and punching himself. Richardson refused to answer
questions for a suicide screening, and police called the
Capital District Psychiatric Center for an evaluation, but
he was never evaluated.
According to the commission’s investigation, the CDPC refused
to evaluate Richardson and gave no reason, but officials
at the CDPC said they were told by the Albany Police Department
that an evaluation would have interfered with Richardson’s
arraignment. Richardson was arraigned on June 10 and sent
to the Albany County Correctional Facility with a judge’s
order for a mental-health screening to see if he could stand
trial. The inmate arrived at the correctional facility,
but the paperwork did not.
A week later, on June 17, Richardson returned to court and
was again ordered to undergo a mental-health screening,
and again the paperwork was mishandled in transit and never
reached the appropriate person. Over the next 11 days, Richardson’s
mental conditions deteriorated rapidly.
Richardson initially refused to get dressed for a visit
from his parents on June 28, and sat rocking in his chair
and clutching himself after being led to the visiting room.
His parents asked to speak to the jail psychiatrist after
their visit was cut short when their son began roving around
the room and acting strangely. They were told they’d have
to speak to a nurse. Richardson’s parents told the nurse
that their son obviously had not been on his medication
and had decompensated (lost his psychological balance).
Richardson’s parents told the jail nurse that their son
had taken Depakote and Risperdal—a mood stabilizer and an
antipsychotic, respectively, often used to treat severe
depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—prior to
his arrest. The nurse told Richardson’s parents that the
mental-health unit was doing all it could to help their
son. Back in his cell, Richardson was rocking on his bed
and screaming, “Jesus, help me.”
Three days later, on June 28, Richardson was about to be
taken to a hearing in the New Baltimore Town Court when
his escort realized he didn’t have the proper security apparatus
to safely transport the detainee. On the way back to his
cell, Richardson made a break for the door and was apprehended
by a few corrections officers.
Around 7 PM, Richardson was dragged back to his cell, agitated
and cursing, kicking and swinging his arms violently. Richardson
was moved to a restraining cell, and he put up a fight as
four or five corrections officers pinned him on his stomach.
During the struggle, Richardson was noted to be foaming
at the mouth as the five-point leather restraint set was
applied to his arms, legs and midsection. At one point during
the struggle, Richardson’s eyes began to roll back in his
head and he became so quiet so quickly that an officer called
for smelling salts. When he was completely restrained, Richardson
was injected with the antipsychotic Haldol at 7:40 PM. No
vital signs were taken, and he was left alone.
Genevieve Plair. Photo by John
nurse made scheduled checks on Richardson at 7:45 and 8
PM, but when she came back at 8:10 PM, the inmate was unconscious.
He died a short time later from traumatic asphyxia resulting
from the application of the restraints, the commissions
report found. Richardson sat in jail for three weeks, and
died the very day corrections officials finally signed a
release permitting him to have a psychiatric evaluation.
In the end it was the leather straps that killed Richardson,
but according to Joe Glazer, president of the nonprofit
Mental Health Advocates of New York State, who was an outspoken
critic of the handling of Richardson’s case, the system
designed to protect him failed almost every step of the
were seven different agencies at two levels of government
involved in his arrest, incarceration, attempted treatment,
transportation,” Glazer says. “Ultimately what it comes
down to under New York’s current system, no one took responsibility
for meeting the health-care and safety needs of Mr. Richardson.”
The Commission of Correction issued a number of recommendations
to the correctional facility and the County Department of
Mental Health, which handles the mental-health tier at the
jail. The Albany County Correctional Facility issued a memorandum,
“Use of Force Special Equipment Order,” to all corrections
officers on the proper use of soft leather strap restraints,
four days after Richardson’s death. An unnamed jail supervisor
was penalized two weeks’ vacation for failing to order constant
supervision for Richardson after he was restrained. A number
of sources involved with Richardson’s case refused to speak
with Metroland about his death, as litigation is
Glazer says that Richardson’s death acted as a springboard
for new ideas about how to deal with the mentally ill in
Fast-forward through two years of fund-seeking, program
development and consensus building and you arrive at Albany
County’s model of jail diversion, one agreed to by more
than two dozen representatives from government, mental health
and criminal justice at both the county and state levels.
Albany County’s model looks to divert individuals after
they are arrested, but prior to arraignment—before they
end up with a crime on their record. Potential divertees
are low-level, nonviolent offenders who’ve had a history
of mental illness. Since last year, the program has diverted
10 individuals out of the 16 referred to it. Of the six
nondiversions, three backed out of the program voluntarily
and one was referred elsewhere.
that point in time, when a referral is made, we complete
a fairly comprehensive mental-health evaluation,” says Meunier.
“We look at mental history, family mental-health history,
substance-abuse history. When that process is complete,
we look at making a decision as to whether the person is
appropriate for the program, if we can provide an adequate
level of care of that individual within this community,
and [whether] we have an adequate level of assurance that
this person is going to successfully complete the program.”
Together, Meunier and the divertee create a treatment regimen
based on the individual’s needs. Through the jail-diversion
program, a client can be connected to housing, counseling
services, psychiatry, independent-living assistance or whatever
else may be necessary.
Next, a compliance schedule is set, where Meunier and the
client meet and discuss progress on a weekly, biweekly or
monthly basis, and then the plan is presented to a judge.
The judge has the discretion to accept the plan as is, or
add to it. Meunier makes regular visits to the judge, reporting
on the individual’s progress, and completion is based on
the previously agreed-to conditions.
Behind Bars: Ed Szostak, Albany County Correctional
Facilitys former superintendent.
Photo by John Whipple.
program is so obvious, it fills such a niche,” Meunier says.
“It takes two systems and really gets them to work together.
This is such a common-sense program, and that seems to be
a problem. People seem to think ‘It’s that obvious, so why
do we have to do it? Why do we have to fund it? Someone
else will fund it.’”
Ed Szostak was the supervisor of the Albany County Correctional
Facility when Richardson died. Exactly three years after
the inmate’s death, Szostak retired and went to work as
a criminal-justice consultant and an advocate for better
treatment of the mentally ill within the correctional industry.
Szostak says the jail diversion program has benefits for
the correctional industry as well.
every inmate that has mental-health problems, it requires
direct supervision, one-to-one supervision, one officer
watching one inmate,” Szostak says. “That is well over $1,000
a day just for one officer to watch that inmate. If you
now have to provide for their medical and mental-health
needs, let alone are you increasing supervision and having
to pay more overtime, you’re also increasing your health-care
costs with costly medication.”
Further, the county’s costs for housing a mental-health
inmate are increasing. According to statistics from 2000,
the average length of stay for a general-population inmate
in the Albany County Correctional facility is 43 days, compared
to 72 days for an inmate with mental-health needs. The cost
to house an inmate at the county jail is $100 a day, which
does not include medical, additional-supervision or service
Szostak, who said the county jail regularly rents out space
to other counties and the federal government, sees an opportunity
for the county to make money utilizing the jail diversion
project to free up more rental cells.
only is it profitable to free up beds, but you reduce liability
by not bringing in a population that has such high demands
for medical and mental-health needs,” Szostak says. “The
more people of a volatile type that you can divert, the
better you are for the facility, the correctional officers
and the client themselves.”
One of the aspects Genevieve Plair most appreciated about
the jail diversion program was what it provided for her
immediately after she was released from jail—a place to
sleep and some food to eat.
I first went into my apartment, the one that they gave me,
it had food there, you know, it was stocked with food,”
Plair says. “I had hot dogs, I had chicken pot pies, I had
peanut butter and jelly, I had bread, I had juice—that they
provided. When I came out [of jail], I wouldn’t have had
any food had they not provided it.”
of the benefits specific to this program is that we can
provide things for people that really eases the transition
from corrections to the street,” says Meunier. “Normally,
most people are being cut loose with nothing more than an
appointment card saying Monday you’ve got to go visit with
this provider. We relieve a lot of those anxieties.”
testing is based on the theory that all kids go to college.
Thats misleading, John Polnack, principal,
Philip Livingston Magnet Academy.
Photo by John Whipple.
recently graduated from the jail diversion program and has
since moved into her own apartment—is studying for her general
equivalency diploma, which she looks forward to receiving
in a few months and then training to be a nurse’s assistant.
Had she not taken part in the diversion program, Plair says
she isn’t sure where she’d be today—maybe jail, maybe a
do feel that I needed assistance like this, but I didn’t
know it at the time,” Plair says. “Where would I have gone
had I not had it? It gave me a chance to reflect. I was
thinking on what it means for me to be sick and to have
this illness that makes me act this way—I just reflected
on my life, how I got into this situation. Even though I
was sick, maybe I should have been taking my meds or maybe
there were some things I could have done to make things
turn out differently.”
Plair thinks it would be a shame if the program folded due
to lack of funding, because she knows there are many people
who could benefit from the services.
be a really sad thing if it were to end, because there are
a lot of people that are mentally ill and in jail, they
aren’t even criminals, they’re just victims of their illness,
you know,” Plair says. “Like I had a warrant. Had I been
put in jail on those disorderly conduct charges way back
when, I would have been put in jail for what? I was sick.
I have a mental illness. They should have put me in a mental
hospital if that’s the case.”
The jail diversion program recently received a small endowment
from the United Way, a $5,000 seed grant—a grant with which
to seek more grant money, really. People participating in
the program estimate that it would cost $150,000 annually
to run the jail diversion project at its ideal level: a
full-time presence in the court, a full-time case worker
and a project coordinator. But that money has yet to materialize,
says Robin Siegal, executive director of Albany County’s
Department of Mental Health.
Office of Mental Health Services at the state level has
inquired of me to report what the funding would be necessary
to continue the program through the department,” Siegal
says. “But we’ve yet to hear back from them. This has been
a good effort in Albany County and everyone involved would
like to be able to continue and support development of similar
models in other counties.”
Meunier agrees that people suffering from mental illnesses
throughout the state could benefit from the community services
made available through the jail diversion program. Unfortunately,
he says, many people with these problems fail to receive
treatment from service providers or in psychiatric facilities,
but rather get it in correctional facilities. Meunier sees
this as a problem not just for those with the mental-health
needs, but also for the communities in which they live.
jail diversion program] promotes public safety not only
immediately but in the long term,” Meunier explains, “because
a person with mental illness who gets arrested and spends
a little time in jail, when that 30 or 60 days are done,
they’re coming out, and they might be worse off than when
they went in.”