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June 04, 2007
Jailing the Mentally Ill; It Harms Them, Harms Other Inmates, and is Very Costly
People with severe psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are being locked up in 8-by-12 foot cells in a Rockingham County (U.S. state of New Hampshire) jail for sometimes minor acts resulting from their illnesses.
According to the Eagle Tribune, many inmates being held at the county jail - approximately 15% and growing - have these severe illnesses affecting their actions.
Echoing a theme becoming all too familiar across the United States, jail Superintendent Al Wright says that he sometimes feels like he's running a psychiatric ward with the jail being the largest provider of psychiatric health services in Rockingham county. This results in stress for the 83 corrections officers, the other inmates and worst of all - for those already suffering from these severe psychiatric disorders and therefore already vulnerable to the effects of stress.
To make matters worse, after 30 days in jail, inmates dependent on Social Security income lose their benefits, which can take an extended period of time to get reinstated. Released from Rockingham County Jail, they have nowhere to go, end up on the street, commit some other minor crime because of hunger, such as stealing food, or tresspassing because of homelessness, and wind up right back in jail.
Explaining how all these people come to be in the county jails instead of a hospital suitable to caring for them, the article says:
Many mentally ill people arrested on trespassing, alcohol or petty theft charges are brought by police to Brentwood because they can't make bail, according to Helen Watkins, the jail's mental health counselor.
Ken Braiterman, a coordinator with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) in New Hampshire says:
Treatment has never been better for mental illness, but it has never been harder for those in need to get it, he said. Funding shortages leave community mental health centers understaffed with underpaid workers who are buried beneath heavy caseloads.
Watkins and Wright are working to change this, meeting with community mental health and other agencies, as well as police and judicial officials. They are seeking prevention programs, more psychiatric beds and alternatives to jail for the severely mentally ill.
Watkins, advocating prevention, explained that it is less expensive than incarceration, both in human and economic costs. She says, "Getting them help, getting them stabilized can head off reincarceration."
Posted by Jeanie Wolfson at June 4, 2007 11:20 AM
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