Social Work Students Explore Corrections System, Mental Health Policies, Services at 15th Annual Stone Legislative Policy Symposium

Jails and prisons have become the nation’s largest psychiatric institutions, especially for low-income persons and persons of color. The National Sheriffs’ Association reports that in virtually every county across the country, county jails hold more people with severe psychiatric illness than any psychiatric facility in that county. More often than not, these facilities are under-equipped to address mental health and related substance abuse problems.

The intersection of New York’s state and local corrections systems and mental health policies and services with respect to incarcerated persons who are seriously mentally ill was explored during the Syracuse University School of Social Work’s 15th Annual James L. Stone Legislative Policy Symposium on Monday, October 21. The event, co-sponsored by the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, was organized around the theme, “Criminalizing New York’s Severely Mental Ill: Where is Dorothea Dix When We Need Her?

Keynote speakers and presentations included, “The Social Cost of Incarcerating of Persons with Severe Mental Illnesses: Legislative Responses,” highlighted by Jeffrion L. Aubry, Assemblyman (District 35) and Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly . “Reflections on the Relationship between Mental Illness and Corrections in New York State” was presented by John Allen, Special Assistant to the Commissioner and Director of the Office of Consumer Affairs, New York State Office of Mental Health. Remarks were also presented by Falk College dean, Diane Lyden Murphy; director of the School of Social Work, Carrie Jefferson Smith; Zaudi Ramirez, president, Social Workers United/Students for Justice and Service; professor Eric Kingson, key organizer of the event and; MSW student and graduate assistant, Hannah Berner, who assisted Kingson in organizing the symposium.

The event’s speakers—advocates, state and county officials, people who have personal experience with the state’s and county’s criminal justice system, and service providers—explored the historical, attitudinal, political, and economic forces that have resulted in New Yorkers with severe mental illness being incarcerated and lacking access to proper care. Discussions looked at the efficacy of specialized treatment and diversion interventions. Speakers and panelists highlighted legislation, administrative changes and advocacy efforts to create a more effective approach to managing mentally ill persons, incarcerated or at risk of being incarcerated.

James L. Stone, SU School of Social Work alumnus whose support makes the symposium possible, moderated the panel, “Mental Illness in New York State’s Prisons and Jails: What’s been done? What remains to be done?” Stone is the former commissioner of the NYS Office of Mental Health. Panelists included: Donna Hall, deputy commissioner, NYS Office of Mental Health; Esteban Gonzalez, administrator, Onondaga County Justice Center and president, American Jail Association; Jack Beck, director, Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York, and; Nina Lowenstein, senior staff attorney, Disability Rights New York.

Additional topics explored included:

Topic: “Experiential Perspectives on Life in the Correctional Settings.”
Moderator: Alejandro Garcia, professor, School of Social Work.
Panelists: Jen Terrero, officer, Syracuse Police Department; David Terrero, Syracuse, N.Y., and; Xenia Becher, internship placement coordinator, instructor, School of Social Work.

Topic: “Providers and Advocates Assess Local Implications: What’s been done? What remains to be done?”
Moderator: Nancy Mudrick, professor, School of Social Work.
John Balloni, civil/administration department chief, Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office; Jennifer Hardwich, police officer, mental health educator, Syracuse Police Department; Ruth Ann Riposa, director, mental health services, Justice Center , Correctional Medical Care, and; Patricia Warth, co-director, justice strategies, Center for Community Alternatives.