Six pseudonymous plaintiffs have filed a proposed class action lawsuit against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state’s Office of Mental Health and its commissioner, and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and its acting and associate commissioners. The 48-page lawsuit, filed in conjunction with Disability Rights New York and the Legal Aid Society, aims to challenge the institutionalization of indigent individuals with serious mental illnesses who are allegedly held in state prisons past their lawful release/parole dates due to the defendants’ alleged failure to make available community-based housing and support services. The case additionally seeks to cover a proposed subclass of individuals who have allegedly been incarcerated past the maximum expiration dates of their court-imposed prison sentences.
The lawsuit equates the defendants’ alleged failure to provide mentally ill, indigent prisoners with adequate support services after their release to an effective lengthening of their prison terms in all but name. In fact, the case continues, mentally ill individuals kept in prison past their release dates may even have their approved releases revoked in the event of a violation of prison rules.
According to the lawsuit, proposed class members have no choice but to continue to reside in prison, and remain subject to prison rules and punishments such as solitary confinement, while waiting for a vacancy to open in a community-based mental health housing program. Despite not being subject to incarceration sentences anymore, proposed class members, the case says, “are not free to come and go or participate in community life.”
“Plaintiffs are locked in secure prison facilities,” the suit reads, “have no autonomy and no privacy, and continue to be treated as prisoners.”
Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the plaintiffs argue that the defendants have no need to isolate proposed class members while there exist community-based mental health services within the prison system that individuals require for their release from prison.
The plaintiffs—who the case says suffer from everything from borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia to bipolar II disorder and have been approved for release from their penitentiaries—stress in the suit that they do not seek from the court an order requiring their release from prison. Instead, the complaint asks that the defendants “make release possible by developing the community-based mental health housing programs” that have been imposed on prisoners as a precondition for their release, and create an effective plan for community integration.