CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat at For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711, then 988. 

Suicide was the leading cause of death in New York City jails last year, rising to a level not seen in decades. Earlier this year, 380 suicide attempts and self-injuries at Rikers, the largest city jail, were reported over just a four-month period. This uptick in suicides and self-harming incidents coincides with a continued erosion in the quality of and access to mental health services for people in custody, according to a new report presented on Thursday. 

The rise reflects a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people with mental health concerns, a group overrepresented in jails and state prisons. This greater share of BIPOC detainees with mental health issues was constant even during pandemic-era early releases of detainees and incarcerated people nationwide and citywide. To find out more, Epicenter scoured the new research and attended a panel with people closest to the issues and solutions. 

Why the city is already under fire over detainee mistreatment

The new report findings coincide with mounting criticism of the Adams administration’s mishandling of detainees across city jails. Last month, staffers said teens were sleeping on the ground in communal areas in the city’s juvenile jails due to overcrowding. Weeks later, 27-year-old Deandre Donahue said he was held at Rikers for 41 hours after posting bail. He’s far from alone: as part of a class-action settlement in 2017, the city agreed to pay out $3,500 each to all detainees who weren’t released within three hours after they posted bail. (Today, Dec. 12, is the last date people can file a late claim.)

Earlier this month, New York Attorney General Letitia James joined the federal government’s and local advocates’ calls for a federal takeover of Rikers. An officer at Rikers had also been suspended after the most recent death of a detained person on Oct. 5. The detainee, 27-year-old Manish Kunwar, struggled with mental health issues and died in a mental health observation unit after just one week in custody. So did the second most recent detainee to die at Rikers, 33-year-old Donny Ubiera. In a probe on Kunwar’s death, investigators found there was no suicide prevention expert working on the night he died, and that the officer on duty failed to check for signs of life every 15 minutes, both mandated in Kunwar’s case, Gothamist/WNYC has reported. 

An activity at the Mental Health Project panel on Dec. 7 invites attendees to post word associations with incarceration. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Mental Health Project lessons: what the systems get wrong

Amid the bleak state of city jails, lessons abound about what does and doesn’t work at the intersection of mental health and criminal legal systems, based on the report compiled by a research team under the Mental Health Project (MHP) at the Urban Justice Center. Researchers interviewed 46 people across the five boroughs from Sept. 2022 to June 2023. Over three interview rounds, they spoke with people directly impacted by the systems, including those who are incarcerated and their families, and people who served this community, from defense attorneys to prosecutors and mental health care providers to peer advocates. 

Their top findings included issues such as:

  • A lack of focus on prevention and options to divert people with mental health issues at risk of incarceration to supportive community-based services;
  • When support services were available, they were often subpar and underfunded, especially in housing and workforce development; 
  • Staff often lacked adequate training in racial equity, cultural responsiveness and mental health — all the more important when the majority of people arrested and in jails are BIPOC and may have mental health concerns. 

Melissa Vergara has experienced most, if not all, these issues through her son, who survived a brain injury after he was born in Elmhurst Hospital with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. After a series of misdiagnoses, her son was finally diagnosed with autism and a mental health disorder. But he received scarce support in the medical and public school systems specific to his conditions. 

Vergara’s struggles across these systems and, later, the criminal legal and mental health care systems, are the reason she went back to school for a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She wanted to help others like her son, who is currently incarcerated, she said during a panel with the MHP on Dec. 7.     

“I work in a [community] diversion program and I see all the services that are available and the benefits,” said Vergara, who Zoomed in from a military base. “I’m put in a conflicting position where I’m helping others but my son can’t get access to this help.”

An activity at the Mental Health Project panel on Dec. 7 invites attendees to post solutions for adequate mental health care and justice. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Mental Health Project lessons: what works

Researchers leveraged interviews, a literature review, MHP staff’s professional and personal experiences, and other data to develop recommendations for justice and healing in this community. Among them were, in short:

  • Resisting the school-to-prison pipeline by investing in preventative measures for youth in the NYC public school system
    • adults in the youth’s life should tag-team to offer mental health support
    • school-based mental health services and other resources should be allocated equitably, especially among BIPOC youth;
  • Investing in diversion from jail by offering permanent supportive housing for people with mental health challenges who are involved in the criminal legal system.
    • expanding access to housing, improve emergency shelter options
    • preventing evictions through rental assistance and legal support;
  • Making 988 an alternative to 911, with 24/7 non-police, peer-led crisis response;
  • Improving the quality of mental health care in NYC jails:
    • expediting the opening of therapeutic housing units planned for Bellevue, Woodhull and North Central Bronx Hospitals
    • ensuring people get specialized care based on their whole self and that staff offer appropriate discharge planning services to people receiving mental health treatment
    • stopping solitary confinement as punishment in jails, which can have devastating consequences on people’s mental health
  • Prioritizing racial, gender and mental health equity in criminal and mental health systems through trauma-informed training, data collection and equity evaluations;
  • Promoting art in mental health recovery; creativity can help build confidence, self-expression and community while reducing stigma.
  • Supporting people re-entering the community through peer support

Panelist Helen ‘Skip’ Skipper, the executive director of the New York City Justice Peer Initiative — and someone with 25 years of experience in and out of the criminal legal and shelter systems — offered her program as an opportunity to get involved in peer support. Regardless of whether you have experience in these systems or know someone who does, you can sign up to be notified when the next training rolls out. To learn more, click here.  

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