Why Workers Fear Moving 50 Criminally Insane Patients
The state plans to relocate the patients of Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, but its new home was not built with prisoners in mind.
State officials plan to move 200 inmates from Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, on Wards Island, to a facility nearby. Many workers at Kirby are concerned about safety issues.Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times
Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center in New York City has long been a place of mystery, with little known about what goes on behind the razor-wire fences.
As a result, the state-run facility for the dangerously mentally ill — located on Wards Island in Manhattan — has gone all but unnoticed for decades, despite having held some of the city’s most notorious criminals, including serial killers and cannibals like Daniel Rakowitz, the so-called Butcher of Tompkins Square Park.
But recently, employees have been speaking up, painting a picture of what goes on in Kirby’s wards. State officials are planning to close Kirby and move its entire population — a decision that has created something close to panic among some of the staff, who say the new quarters are not safe for patients or employees.
Kirby is a maximum-security facility that holds mentally-ill patients who have been charged with a crime. Some have been granted an insanity plea by a judge; others are pretrial detainees accused of felony crimes but found unfit to proceed to trial.
The move will transfer the facility’s more than 200 prisoners from a fortresslike building with bars on the windows and cement walls and ceilings into a unit of Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a civilian hospital close by on Wards Island.
Officials say the move, planned for January, is necessary because Kirby’s building has grown outdated. They say patients will be placed in a refurbished section of the hospital, securely separated from civilian patients. But staff members are arguing that the hospital was never designed to handle a population with a criminal background, and say it presents all manner of risks.
“These are not normal mental patients,” said Catherine Mortiere, a forensic psychologist at Kirby. “They are some of the most violent inmates in the state.”
The state Office of Mental Health called Kirby’s building “antiquated.” It said it is also for the same reason rebuilding Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, which is north of New York, near Middletown.
“The safety and security of our staff and the people we serve are O.M.H.’s top priority,” a spokesman said in a statement. “When our facilities become outdated, we work to refurbish, rebuild and update them in order to utilize the best practices and state-of-the-art safety features to ensure the well-being of our patients and staff.”
The prospect of the move has caused upheaval at Kirby. The union representing its clinicians is filing a lawsuit in hopes of securing a temporary injunction from a judge; guards and former guards have created an online petition calling on the state’s mental health commissioner and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to “do the right thing and halt this move” to ensure their safety.
Stephen Harkavy, the deputy director of Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which represents the patients, said the new area will be inspected before patients are moved. “A lot of these concerns are premature, until that happens,” he said. “If they find changes need to be made, I would assume they will implement them.”
Mr. Harkavy, who said he worked at Kirby for about a decade, added: “I believe the fears about patients are overstated. I never felt unsafe.”
But several employees — who insisted that their names not be used because they said they feared reprisals — described Kirby as a singularly dangerous place to work, in the best of circumstances.