On Sept. ­­­­24, 2020 the Westchester County Department of Correction (WCDOC) opened a newly designed special housing unit to support residents suffering from significant psychiatric impairment, who require intensive evaluation and treatment within a specialized mental health setting. The purpose of the new Acute Mental Health Unit (A.M.H.U.) is to help inmates with mental health concerns and co-occurring disorders begin a path towards recovery using a range of clinical supports and services. Some residents require intensive supports to ensure their safety as well as the safety of the corrections personnel in the facility, and the A.M.H.U. will promote both safety and recovery.  

Corrections Commissioner Joseph K. Spano said: “We worked with key stakeholders and developed a comprehensive treatment and therapeutic model that is sure to make a difference for our residents both during and after their period of incarceration. Serious mental illness has become so widespread in the U.S. corrections system that some jails and prisons are commonly referred to as the ‘new asylums.’ In fact, according to a 2016 national study, the Los Angeles County Jail, Chicago’s Cook County Jail or New York’s Rikers Island each held more mentally ill residents than any remaining psychiatric hospital in the United States. The A.M.H.U. will serve as a win-win for both our residents and staff at the facility, allowing our inmates to receive the care they need while streamlining the process of their recovery.”

In recent years, working closely with their resident health care provider, Wellpath, the Department of Community Mental Health (DCMH) and other strategic partners, WCDOC has launched many new initiatives to treat residents suffering from serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders. In 2017, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care recognized their groundbreaking mental health reentry program as its National Mental Health Program of the year.

Additionally, in 2019, WCDOC launched a multifaceted detoxification and stabilization program for newly-admitted residents. This Structured Observation and Addiction Recovery (SOAR) unit focuses on two key initiatives: (i) enhanced observation of residents withdrawing from substance use; (ii) once stabilized, supporting those individuals with intensive programming. In 2020, WCDOC repurposed an existing housing unit and created a unique state of the art “Constant Observation” unit for female residents. This new unit provides a more open and therapeutic setting than the traditional one-on-one watch in a single cell and has an embedded correction officer 24/7.

Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health Commissioner Michael Orth said: “We recognize that some people with serious mental health concerns and co-occurring disorders become involved in the justice system and may end up in the custody of the WCDOC. We are fortunate to have a strong collaborative partnership with the WCDOC and Wellpath, their correctional health care provider. Collectively, we have been able to develop programs that have received national recognition. The Acute Mental Health Unit will provide enhanced clinical support to those individuals in the greatest need of mental health support. Ultimately, this will increase the safety of the person and personnel at the Department of Correction.” 

The new A.M.H.U supports up to 12 residents, each of whom will have individualized treatment plans. The multidisciplinary approach team consists of the Director of Mental Health, Psychiatrist, Qualified Mental Health Professionals, Licensed Practicing Nurse, Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Correction Officers. As part of the planning phase over 30 Department representatives participated in a full day of orientation and training.

Wellpath’s Director of Mental Health Dr. Jerome Norton said: “It is an exciting opportunity to once again be able to further enhance our existing mental health services for our most psychiatrically compromised residents.  Our model draws upon multi-agency resources to promote each individual’s success through comprehensive treatment approaches.”