Opinion: It’s time to stop throwing young people with undertreated mental health conditions issues in jail

Two mothers whose sons have been incarcerated at Rikers Island call for supporting legislation that expands eligibility for treatment, instead of locking up young people.

The recently introduced Treatment Not Jail Act will expand eligibility for addressing mental health concerns and other disabilities young people facing incarceration may have.

The recently introduced Treatment Not Jail Act will expand eligibility for addressing mental health concerns and other disabilities young people facing incarceration may have. rblfmr/Shutterstock

The crisis on Rikers Island is personal to us. As mothers of sons with diagnosed but undertreated mental health issues, we have seen this coming. Now is the time to do something different.

Both of our sons have been incarcerated on Rikers Island. Melissa’s son is currently there on $150,000 bail and just had 15 stitches last week after being stabbed. He’s been locked in a cell for five days without a mattress, sliced in the face in June and pepper-sprayed by a correction officer when he was having a mental health episode. He’s 19 years old. Peggy’s son is home with his family only after they scraped together money and went to a bail bondsman, when a judge set his bail at $50,000. That was 15 months ago. His case is still open, and if his family hadn’t been able to pay bail, he would have spent more than a year in the hellish conditions on Rikers Island.

We’re also both mental health service providers. Peggy is a youth counselor in group homes and youth detention centers for 12- to-17-year-olds. Melissa changed her major in college from business management to sociology in response to her son’s challenges and is now a qualified mental health professional and case manager getting her master’s in clinical health counseling.

Both of our sons have been pushed through what amounts to a school-to-prison pipeline for children of color from working class communities. Their mental health issues have been ignored and neglected by the public school system. Melissa’s son had behavioral problems from a young age and was always punished, and not one administrator ever inquired into the roots of his problems. For a long time, his family trusted the schools and also punished him on the advice of administrators and were called helicopter parents when they began questioning the schools’ methods. When he was in court, his family lobbied for his treatment, and the prosecutor offhandedly told them an important truth: that the majority of young people in the criminal justice system have a mental disorder. When looking over documentation of his mental health needs, she said, “It just looks like he throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.” Instead of treatment, she offered to reduce his sentence by two years, which would send him to prison for six years. It was like his family was negotiating prices, not Melissa’s son’s restoration and recovery. Currently, the judge is willing to move his case to mental health court, but the district attorney’s office needs to consent. Just like with his public schooling, ultimate authority is given to an entity that sees its only purpose as punishing him.

Peggy’s son also had behaviors that were labeled as disruptive from a young age. As his mother, Peggy could clearly see that these behaviors were symptoms of mental health needs and reactions to trauma, like losing his father at the age of 7. But boys growing up in Jamaica, Queens, are rarely viewed as vulnerable and in need of support. Peggy has tried so many times, and is still trying, to find real, quality treatment that she can afford. At this point, she doesn’t know if it exists. But law enforcement is always present. Her son is continually watched by police and stopped regularly - so often that he has his mother on speed dial when he leaves the house and calls when he is stopped so she can listen in. They’ve labeled him as a threat, even when he’s the victim - the charge that he’s awaiting trial for is actually a result of his being jumped by three young men and being arrested while fighting back. Peggy’s son is thankfully not sitting on Rikers Island right now, but this constant police targeting means he’s far from free.

It is both as mothers and as mental health professionals that we declare, this has to stop. We have to fully fund the programs and services that can actually respond to mental health needs, instead of relying on police, courts and jails to fill a gap they will never be equipped for. One substantial step toward this is the Treatment Not Jail Act, recently introduced by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest. This state legislation will expand eligibility for treatment diversion and remove barriers that are keeping New Yorkers with substance use challenges, mental health concerns and other disabilities from accessing the care and support they need. There is lots of talk about treatment as an alternative to our costly and deadly jail system, but existing mental health courts are vastly under-utilized, with prosecutors playing gatekeeper and continuing to slam the door on those who need help. There were just 47 new mental court participants in New York City in all of 2019 and just 10 in 2020. Every legislator who is truly invested in the health and safety of our communities should support this legislation.  

Both of our sons have asked us on more than one occasion, “Why am I like this?” or “Why was I born like this?” We need to stop asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and start asking, “What happened to you?” If there is one thing we both know, as mothers and as mental health professionals, it’s this: Human behavior is not random. There’s always an underlying reason for our actions, but our society, even our “progressive” city, has mainly chosen to punish those actions rather than finding those reasons. The penal system does not address trauma, it just piles more trauma on top of it. 

We witness this mindset in our own communities daily, and it will continue until we recognize that our children are all of ours. Recently Peggy was walking down the street in her neighborhood when she saw something we both see frequently: cops stopping and searching young boys for some alleged crime. She stopped, as she often does, to bear witness. “Keep walking,” one cop told her. She told him these kids were human and that she wanted something better for them, not for them just to be taken away. He apologized to her, but they still took those boys away.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We need to look at mental health as a societal concern, not an individual failing. Perhaps then we can move from destroying lives to restoring them. The Treatment Not Jail Act is a step in that direction.

Melissa Vergara is a licensed qualified mental health professional currently working as a case manager with individuals suffering from substance use disorder. Peggy Herrera is a mental health advocate and a youth counselor for incarcerated youth. Both are from Queens. 

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