JailOn Tuesday, July 17, several members of Westchester’s New York State Assembly delegation toured Westchester’s correctional complex, and gained a first-hand account of the issue of mental illness and its interplay with county jails.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer also attended the tour and noted: “Instead of heading to state prison, most inmates in our County jail will return home to Westchester -- whether its Yonkers, Port Chester, Briarcliff or North Salem.  People with criminal histories and mental illness often feel that the deck is stacked against them. Through our Departments of Correction and Community Mental Health, Westchester is actively trying to change that dynamic.”  

Over several years, Westchester’s jail population has steadily declined to its current census of approximately 1000 inmates in custody, its lowest level since 1986.  While the jail’s census has declined, the individuals in custody present significant challenges from a medical, mental health or behavioral perspective.  Approximately 30 percent of the jail’s population receives mental health services while in custody, and many suffer from serious mental illness (SMI), chemical dependency and histories of significant trauma and abuse.

In addressing the delegation, Correction Commissioner Joseph K. Spano stated: “Regardless of the size of a facility -- whether it’s Westchester, Rikers Island or a 40-bed jail on the Canadian border -- all 62 counties faces similar challenges in addressing inmates’ serious mental illness.  In Westchester, our nationally-recognized treatment program has a two-fold mission: to provide inmates with critical services, while at the same time enhancing the safety of our staff members.” 

At the County jail, facility intake is a critical ‘first encounter’ with newly-admitted inmates, who are screened for suicidality, injuries, illness and other issues requiring immediate response. A statewide model, the Department of Correction’s inmate database communicates with the Department of Community Mental Health (DCMH), which then sends the jail an alert if the inmate has been receiving mental health services in the community.  Thereafter, a mental health ‘scoring system’ developed by the jail’s inmate health service provider (NYCCS) classifies inmates according to their needs and risks.

In 2014, Westchester County received a start-up grant of $50,000 from New York State to further evidence-based jail mental health practices.  Using this grant as ‘seed money,’ DOC, DCMH and NYCCS developed the Community Oriented Reentry Program (CORE), which provides focused group programming for adult male inmates suffering from serious mental illness. 

DCMH Commissioner Michael Orth explained: “What is truly unique about CORE is the wide array of community-based services that come into the jail to work with this population. In Westchester, discharge planning begins at intake. We recognize that inmates with serious mental illness need intensive programming to increase their odds of reintegrating into the community.”

All inmates involved in CORE do so voluntarily -- no one is mandated by a judge or jury to attend.  They participate in programs such as art therapy, yoga, guest speakers and journaling.  Partners hail from all corners of the County and include both mental health organizations as well as spiritual care providers, like churches and mosques.  The program has since been expanded to other ‘special needs’ populations, such as inmates under the age of 19 and females. 

Once CORE was up and running, the jail saw serious incidents involving its participants drop drastically, including far less inmate assaults, requests for protective custody and general misbehavior. Justin Pruyne, one of the jail’s Deputy Commissioners, stated: “Introducing CORE was admittedly a leap of faith for many of us.  We had concerns as to whether 44 inmates with serious mental illness could live together peacefully in a wide open housing area.  What we’ve seen has been dramatic -- assaults in CORE are virtually non-existent and its residents have developed a true sense of community and togetherness.”

Westchester is home to the only New York State jail with dual national accreditation and, in 2017, CORE was selected by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care as its ‘Program of the Year’. Receiving this award over 300 other NCCHC member-organizations nationwide, the CORE program has also been recognized by New York State and the United States Department of Justice as truly groundbreaking. 

DCMH Deputy Commissioner Joseph Glazer stated: “For Westchester and its partners, national recognition does not mean that the good work can ever stop or that new challenges will not be presented.  In recent years, the jail has seen a steady increase in individuals arriving addicted to opioids and other substances, as well as mental health needs.  In Westchester, the jail is another part of our continuum of care. We are committed to ensuring person-centered treatment for individuals in Westchester, no matter where they live. As part of the legislators’ tour, Westchester discussed areas for further collaboration with New York State government on these issues of mutual concern.”