- Associated Press - Thursday, July 28, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - New York prisoners with intellectual and developmental disabilities housed in a newly created special unit designed to be more therapeutic have been abused, neglected and deprived of adequate mental health services, according to an advocacy group.

Lawyers for Disability Rights New York, a nonprofit that by law has wide authority to investigate conditions for disabled New Yorkers, found in a report released Thursday that state prison and mental health officials should improve services in, and better train staff assigned to, the 64-person Correctional Alternatives Rehabilitation unit at Sullivan Correctional Facility.

The unit was opened in May 2014 as an alternative to 23-hour isolation for prisoners with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have earned more than 30 days in solitary confinement for breaking prison rules. In the unit, those inmates are supposed to receive more out-of-cell time, therapy and access to other programs that will help them develop social skills and improve their decision-making.

It was opened as part of a settlement reached earlier this year with state officials and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state in 2011 over its use of solitary confinement for about 4,000 prisoners serving their time in 23-hour isolation at any given time in the 54-prison system.

But many prisoners housed in the unit alleged they were beaten in a property room without surveillance cameras and independently complained that one correction officer assigned to the unit used racial slurs and purposefully instigated confrontations with them while another regularly appeared to get drunk while on duty, the report found.

In other cases, mental health staffers appeared to not take seriously erratic behavior by prisoners on the unit - such as smearing their cells with feces and expressing suicidal ideations - because they believed inmates were faking symptoms to escape further punishment, the report found.

“DRNY finds that some mental health staff treat behavioral incidents as volitional and manipulative, rather than as a manifestation of disability or a response to environmental factors,” the report says.

State prison officials have said allegations of abuse have been referred to a special investigative squad that is looking into the complaints.

In its formal response to the nonprofit group, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Assistant Commissioner Bryan Hilton said the unit “is adequately serving” the population it was designed to house.

In a statement, a department spokesman called the report “a laundry list of inaccurate and misleading statements from an advocacy group that fails to understand the basic workings of state correctional facilities.”

State Office of Mental Health officials have consulted on dozens of cases, Hilton said, referring some inmates to special mental health programs which “demonstrates not only the accessibility to mental health services, but also the routine use of OMH professionals to help manage this population.”

A spokesman for state mental health officials referred inquiries to prison officials, who operate the program.

Jimmy Miller, a spokesman for the union representing state corrections officers, said in a statement that allegations are regularly leveled against his members but that they “conduct themselves with professionalism and with dignity.”

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