In a startling expose, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a peculiar law in Florida, as well as eleven other states, that "essentially set no limit on how long someone can be detained if the person is deemed dangerous". Any number of activities can be used to deem a person dangerous under the law, including unsubstantiated charges. Judges are required to review these cases every year, in case of a change in mental welfare, but these hearings "can sometimes last just minutes, with a judge relying almost exclusively on written reports from the state", the Times reports. As Polk County Public Defender Bob Young bluntly puts it, "If somebody is retarded, and someone accuses them of a crime, then they're going away for a long time whether they did it or not".
The paper's findings would be shocking on their own, but they come on the heels of the summer's earlier reports out of New York, where both the New York Daily News and the New York Times reported on the horrifying conditions of the mentally ill prisoners there. According to the Daily News, almost "40% of the approximately 11,000 daily inmates at Rikers are diagnosed with a mental illness. That's a 24% increase from 2007 — a jump in part due to the closing of large mental hospitals". As was the case in Florida, the Daily News found someone particularly blunt, in this case Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association. ""Rikers is the new dumping ground for everyone's problems", he said, and with the latest scandal out of Florida it's hard not to feel that it's becoming a growing trend nationally.
How are Florida and New York responding? Historically, criminal rights has never been high on the agenda of any voter, meaning that lawsuits have often been the go-to strategy for justice in cases such as these. Disability Rights Florida, Inc., is the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against Dade Correctional one of only ten state-run facilities with mental health units. To put that in perspective, Florida has 143 correctional facilities, total. DRF's injunction, according to the Miami Herald, seeks to stop what it "calls "widespread'' abuse of mentally ill prisoners. 'The purpose of the Department of Corrections' in-patient mental health units is to provide treatment for mentally ill inmates, not to punish them,' said Peter Sleasman of Florida Institutional Legal Services, which filed the lawsuit."
In New York, scenes like this aren't new. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "a task force "to overhaul how New York City's corrections system treats the mentally ill — both in jail and out" and plans to release its plan to the Mayor later this month. Such a report is complicated by both the number of agencies involved in jailing the mentally ill and the high percentage held in New York correctional facilities. Whatever suggestions the task force offers, it will be too late for some families, including that of Bradley Ballard, who are suing the city in light of his recent death in solitary confinement. According to the Times, Ballard's mother "blamed the Correction Department for her son's death. 'You are there to correct the inmate, not to destroy him,' she said during a news conference on Wednesday at her lawyer's office in Manhattan.