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.

Often they arrive for minor crimes, ineligible for personal recognizance bail because they have no job, family ties or place to live.

Also, there is a shortage of psychiatric beds at the state hospital - down from 3,000 beds in the 1960s to 300 today. This leaves police little choice but to transport mentally ill suspects to jail.

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.

Jail is the worst place for the seriously mentally ill. They are isolated, ostracized and vulnerable.

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."

Read the story: Locking up mentally ill taxes county jail

Related Reading:
Some Counties Try Mental Health Courts
Prisons - The New Asylums (News Report)
New Book: Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness
Some Cities are Tackling Homelessness; Providing Services for People with Schizophrenia


Whether it's a minor offense, or a major offense, the severally mentally ill should not be sent to prison...period.

And in the meantime, until things change, the severally mentally ill already in prison need much much better treatment and housing.

Posted by: Nell at November 30, 2007 11:51 PM

As a person with severe schitzoaffective disorder the rarest mental illness also the worst I know that people who want to throw us in prison need to walk a day in our shoes then they would understand what it is like to be like us and they would put their own shoes on by noon.

Posted by: shannon g curtis at January 10, 2008 06:40 AM

Too many mentally ill folks have being arrested for minor causes. In fact they should be absolved for most of them due to their illness. A nice alternative is to enforce then in state facilities which should be more like a drug addiction treatment center than a jail.

Posted by: Radu at April 10, 2008 06:32 AM

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