From www.lohud.com, By David Robinson
A New York State psychiatric center operated illegally with impunity while two dead bodies, 40 assaults and 25 sex offenses triggered police responses behind its walls from 2012 to 2016, The Journal News/lohud has found.
The newly obtained tally of violence, roughly one attack per month, is part of 210 criminal incidents at Central New York Psychiatric Center. Much of the violence involved the mentally ill men locked up there, and it unfolded without the independent monitor required by law.
From rapes and beatings to illicit drug use and falsified treatment records, the incidents offered a rare look into problems inside the closely guarded psychiatric center, according to records obtained by The Journal News/lohud through Freedom of Information Law requests.
Reports of abuse and neglect extended into the misuse of medication, gaps in video surveillance and flawed record-keeping involved in keeping sex offenders locked up indefinitely at the site in Marcy, a rural town 50 miles east of Syracuse.
Among The Journal News/lohud findings
- A board of visitors hasn’t convened to monitor the Marcy psychiatric center as required by state law. The governor-appointed board is supposed to serve as a key independent monitor and pursue accountability.
- Authorities caught one psychiatrist who filed bogus records claiming he worked at the center when he, in fact, didn’t. The scam, which included falsified patient-treatment records, unfolded during an eight-month period in 2016. A state judge said another psychiatrist there didn’t have sufficient experience to treat the patients.
- Handwritten complaint letters from those locked up opened a window into the minds of inmates and sex offenders, including those who claimed they were beaten, abused and mistreated while locked up.
- New York is one of the most expensive mental health systems in the country, at about $4 billion per year. It costs taxpayers $65 million per year to confine sex offenders, or $175,000 each. By contrast, a strict probation costs about $9,000 per offender. Taxpayers further covered tens of millions of dollars more per year in related capital costs.
Presented with the findings, Matthew Shapiro, a public policy expert at the National Alliance on Mental Illness – New York State, described the situation as disturbing.
“This is the largest public-funded psychiatric hospital system in the country, and it is spending a lot of money to treat not that many people, which is the first problem,” he said, referring to New York’s network of 24 psychiatric centers, including the one in Marcy.
Civil confinement probe expands
The Journal News/lohud obtained state police records and internal psychiatric center documents as part of its year-long investigation of New York’s civil commitment law, which is used to lock up sex offenders who completed criminal sentences.
The exclusive collection of records spotlighted the dangers of indefinite confinement and mistreated mental illness, a mix that medical experts and civil rights advocates assert undermines the American judicial system.
“In many ways, it seems to go against what we as a country believe our criminal justice system should look like,” said Michael Miner, a mental health expert and past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Under New York state law, the court determines if a sex offender poses a heightened risk to reoffend and requires being confined beyond a criminal sentence. Once locked up, many men have a limited chance of release.
“My biggest concern about civil commitment is that I don’t think the predictive accuracy in terms of dangerousness is anywhere near effective enough to make a decision about someone’s lifetime liberty,” Miner said.
For New York State's part, Office of Mental Health Spokesman James Plastiras asserted taxpayer money goes to a wide range of critical mental health services, including to confine sex offenders.
“In addition to keeping New York’s communities safe, these programs also help to prevent inappropriate and unnecessary incarceration, reduce the risk of recidivism, and ensure that the identified individuals receive the services they need,” he said.
The lack of independent oversight, however, raises questions about millions of taxpayer dollars spent at Central New York Psychiatric Center.
“If they’re not utilizing a board of visitors it’s illegal, and it’s something that would be very concerning to us,” Shapiro said. “Independent people should be able to see what is going on in there.”
Plastiras said the center has been unable to recruit to its board of visitors and is actively seeking candidates.
In light of the criminal incidents, Office of Mental Health, or OMH, officials said staff training and policy changes have sought to limit safety risks and improve care at the psychiatric center.
The agency officials described the inmate patients as a challenging population with histories of violence, gang affiliation, substance abuse and mental illness.
“The Office of Mental Health is committed to the safety and security of our employees and all the patients we serve,” Plastiras said. “Staff receive extensive training and annual refreshers to assist them in becoming familiar with techniques to de-escalate aggressive behavior and prevent workplace violence.”
The police reports
State troopers rushed to the aid of guards at Central New York Psychiatric Center dozens of times from 2012 to 2016.
In addition to sex offenders and inmates harming one another, guards and staff have been attacked as well, according to police data and guard union reports.
The violence included:
A female worker punched and throttled.
A hostage scenario ended without injuries after an offender held a shard of porcelain to another patient’s throat.
A riot where patients picked up utensils and makeshift weapons left 12 guards injured.
The newly reported state police database includes the type of incident, date and other basic information.
The 210 criminal incidents seemed to include both sex offenders confined under civil commitment law, as well as general inmates from state prisons and county jails receiving mental health services at the building.
Further, state police investigated two deaths of sex offenders confined at the facility, but it is difficult to determine exactly what happened because police withheld many details, citing privacy laws.
The first death was a man described as black and Hispanic. Police investigators determined he accidentally choked on a wad of newspaper.
Police records show OMH staff said the man had a history of swallowing things and required constant supervision. Workers told police that the man likely swallowed the newspaper while in the bathroom and choked. Police ruled the death an accident.
The other death was a white man found unresponsive in bed after several hours of lying there without being checked on by guards. The man’s roommate reported something was wrong and triggered workers’ unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate him.
The man didn’t have any health problems but was taking medication that was redacted in police records. Investigators seemingly determined natural causes led to a fatal cardiac event.
State police investigators didn't respond to an interview request regarding the deaths.
A collection of patient complaint letters offers a glimpse into the dark world behind the walls and razor wire surrounding the psychiatric center.
In scratched handwriting and flowing cursive, several men described being physically assaulted by guards and denied rights, such as health care and legal aid. Much of it involved the state Office of Mental Health, or OMH, which withheld names and other details citing privacy laws.
One complaint was seemingly ignored for two months, prompting the patient to follow up with another letter about his allegations against staff.
The man then accused a doctor, whose name was redacted, of medical malpractice for placing him on an “off label market” drug that worsened his condition.
In another letter, a man accused workers at a state maximum security prison, Five Points Correctional facility in Romulus, of assaulting inmates and covering up mental health treatment failures.
“Furthermore OMH personnel regularly conspire with correction officers to withhold food from patients … and carry out physical assaults against them in an attempt to force patients to go back to their housing unit without having been treated,” the man wrote.
“Patients are (dying) and/or suffering as a result of this widespread corruption,” he said.
In a rambling 17-page letter, one man talks of being raised in foster care and beaten by a foster mother. He connects the childhood abuse to a lifetime of incarceration, describing 25 years of traumatic experiences behind bars.
At one point, the man writes of an apparent death of a fellow inmate at a correction facility in Auburn. He claims guards ignored the inmate’s calls for an OMH worker for two hours prior to the incident.
Then the letter takes an ominous tone regarding society ignoring the mentally ill. It reels off details of mass shootings from the Colorado massacres in an Aurora movie theater and Columbine High School to more generic shootings of co-workers and police.
After describing each violent scenario of murder and suicide, he writes the same phrase: “Think of me, and people like me”
Some of the other letters make claims of being injected by drugs involuntarily, ignored by doctors and beaten by guards while restrained.
Over the years, federal lawsuits have outlined a variety of allegations of neglect and abuse inside the psychiatric center.
The Journal News/lohud has requested further complaint records connected to the lawsuits and police reports. OMH has said it will release them in the future.
State Supreme Court Justice James Tormey’s courtroom has been a civil commitment battlefield over the past decade.
Tormey, whose Syracuse jurisdiction covered the program, recently penned scathing decisions that detail failures at Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, about 10 miles west of Utica.
State Supreme Court Justice James Tormey.
State Supreme Court Justice James Tormey. (Photo: Submitted)
In one high-profile case, he asserted incompetence, negligence and potential obstruction of justice prevented reforms, according to sealed court records obtained by The Journal News/lohud.
The 14-page document outlined the story of Richard Z., one of the first sex offenders civilly confined under the 2007 mental health law. His nine years locked up in the Marcy psychiatric center followed 30 years in prison, and culminated with the rare chance at release to a strict probation.
In a courtroom saga that stretched from 2015 to 2017, Tormey turned Richard’s case into an indictment of insufficient mental health treatment of confined sex offenders in New York.
At the heart of the court debate was the use of drugs to reduce the risk of Richard reoffending.
Tormey found OMH wasn’t providing sufficient care and had outside experts evaluate Richard. They recommended using a drug to effectively chemically castrate him and allow for release.
But Tormey asserted that a state psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Gray, recently took over Richard’s sex offender program and derailed the release.
“This court further concludes that Dr. Gray is not an ‘expert’ with sufficient knowledge and experience to be treating sex offenders at the CNYPC,” Tormey said.
Gray started as a psychiatrist for OMH in 2013 and no longer works there, the state agency said, but declined to provide further details.
In a separate court case, the state inspector general’s office caught psychiatrist Morales Brown falsifying records for work he didn’t do at Central New York Psychiatric Center.
Brown lied about treating mentally ill inmates from the state prison and took a plea deal that required paying back about $5,500 and forced him to leave the state job, inspector general records show.
Inmates claimed Brown didn’t make any attempts to visit or evaluate them, and investigators found he falsified psychiatric progress notes that cleared the inmates to return to the general prison population.
“The inmates further claim that they were not ready to go back into general population and they required additional mental health treatment,” the Inspector General’s Office reported.
Miner, the mental health expert, described improper staffing as a crucial problem in 20 states with sex-offender civil commitment laws.
“The civil commitment programs are very hard to recruit for because there aren’t a lot of people who are expert in working with these populations,” Miner said, “And it’s hard to recruit for because of the general sense of hopelessness of the clients.”
The psychiatric center in Marcy changed policies to require staff to sign into different facilities, reinforce management oversight and improve record-keeping after the Brown situation, according to the Office of Mental Health.
Shapiro of the New York mental illness group expanded on the skills gap at psychiatric hospitals, which are often in isolated and rural communities that already struggle to attract top professionals.
“What we do fear often, while there are a lot of good people working in these hospitals, these are not the most desirable jobs,” he said. “The workforce issue is something that is very concerning.”
In addition to its less-than-desirable location, the psychiatric center offers a broad range in pay for such difficult jobs, from $36,500 for entry level security officers to $275,000 for psychiatrist supervisors.
A sampling of internal reports obtained through public-record requests offered a snapshot of how the state handles problems at the psychiatric center.
The incidents touched on everything from mishandled medications to insufficient video surveillance, documents show. State regulators reported taking corrective steps to address flaws in the system.
One included specific mention of an improper use of sedatives.
“Medical specialist reviewed incident and it appears the increased dose of Lyrica, along with his usual psychiatric medications, caused a multiplicative effect,” the report states. “Care will be exercised in the future concerning sedating medication in combination with other sedating medications.”
Another report recommended video surveillance cameras be installed in the dining area for the protection of patients and staff.
Several reports detail efforts to improve suicide prevention protocols and training, such as constant observation policies. Others refer to staff failing to follow rules for reporting treatment-related issues to regulators.
The 16 corrective plans followed incidents designated significant, or labeled as abuse and neglect. All of the cases occurred in 2016 and have been closed, records show.
Miner, who is also a University of Minnesota professor, described a growing push across the country to reform civil-commitment laws, despite reluctance among lawmakers due to the complex politics of releasing dangerous sex offenders.
Examples include a state court forcing Texas to overhaul its program, and a federal judge ruling the Minnesota program required serious changes to limit civil rights violations.
Miner testified as an expert in the Minnesota case that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court basically leaving it up to states to sort out.
“The more conversation there is around this the more level headed the conversation is, and the more likely that changes are likely to take place,” Miner said.
Katherine Gotch, director of the Integrated Clinical and Correctional Services in Oregon, said reforms are gaining traction across the country because they’re removed from the emotional and politically charged origins behind many states’ civil commitment laws.
For example, New York’s law was enacted in the wake of intense lobbying after a convicted rapist fatally stabbed a woman in a White Plains parking garage in 2005.
After 10 years of locking up sex offenders, the law recently has been challenged in state court over its constitutionality and treatment concerns. The Times Union reported that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the program.
Officials at the Office of Mental Health said they aren’t aware of any Department of Justice investigation, and the federal law enforcement agency declined comment.
"Oftentimes policies are developed as an emotional response to a horrific situation, which doesn't mean the horrific situation didn't happen," Gotch said. "However, we need to be more objective when making policy decisions, and it's an ongoing process."