The Elmhurst Mental Health Unit is reopening for Rikers women

Women from Rikers Island enter a ward at Elmhurst Hospital Center and are no longer seen as inmates, but as patients.


What you need to know

  • In April 2020, the Rikers Island Women's Psychiatric Inpatient Unit at Elmhurst Hospital was closed
  • It remained closed for four years due to a COVID surge and staffing shortages in the city's Department of Correction
  • It reopened on Tuesday and NY1 got an exclusive look inside

“Once they get here, they are considered patients,” Department of Correction Captain Nicola McKenzie told NY1. 'There is no mention of prisoners or individuals. They are patients who need help. They are.”

They call it D-11, a Rikers Island women's intensive psychiatric unit run by Elmhurst Hospital and the Department of Correction.

NY1 got an exclusive look inside.

“Because it was closed for so long, we decided to improve the unit and make it safer for patients,” said Dr. Vladimir Gasca, director of behavioral health and psychiatry at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst.

Closed for quite some time – almost four years – a casualty of COVID that hit Elmhurst hard and then a staffing crisis at DOC.

The reopening is scheduled for Tuesday.

“We have done our best during the pandemic without the unity, but I think this brings back equity. We really need to provide the same service to men and women,” said Dr. Gasca.

“And you know there's a big topic right now in New York City about mental health and this is a great place, especially for the women who are in DOC custody so that they can come and get the treatment that they need,” said Captain McKenzie.

The unit is intended to address one of the biggest challenges plaguing the city's Department of Correction, which is already engulfed in controversy and violence.

The number of Rikers Island inmates with serious mental illnesses has been rising for years.

In November, 21% of inmates had a serious mental health diagnosis.

Now twelve women in greatest need will receive care at the center.

“I know Rikers has really been waiting for it to open because they've been treating ladies there who really need inpatient care,” said Dr. Gasca. “So we expect it to be full for the first few months.”

Advocates say the department's reopening is a good thing, but wonder why it has taken so long. They're also skeptical that women got the care they needed at Rikers in the meantime.

While closed they renovated. Every fixture and window is all designed to minimize self-harm, including the blankets.

None of the doors to the rooms close. The women are never locked up.

There will be programs such as art therapy and yoga.

They hope the changes downtown will bring change to Rikers as well.

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