American Jails Have Become De Facto Psychiatric Facilities, P. 3 - Sparrow Law Firm

We are close to wrapping up our discussion of how jails and prisons are dealing with the mentally ill. Anyone involved with the criminal justice system — either defense or prosecution — is aware that the number of inmates with mental illness has increased dramatically over the past two decades. The problem, of course, is that jails and prisons are not equipped to handle these inmates’ special needs.

Here in North Carolina, the Department of Correction is adding prison hospital facilities for both medical patients and mental health patients. One reason the state decided to build? Inmates have been sent to nearby inpatient facilities because correctional facilities are at capacity. It’s cheaper and more efficient to build a new wing than it is to pay others to care for these prisoners.

A sheriff in another state describes a dire situation in his county. The local hospital is at capacity, so inmates or detainees end up staying at the jail. The average stay for someone with mental illness is between 50 and 100 days — and the likelihood of that person getting the treatment he needs is fairly small. Just a handful of counselors are assigned to the jail, where the average daily population is 400 inmates.

“It seems to me that we have criminalized being mentally ill,” he said.

Central Prison will take care of inmates who have committed more serious crimes, but the state’s jails may end up taking care of people who have committed minor crimes.

A judge from another state has come up with an interest approach to that problem. We’ll go into that in our next post.

Source: National Public Radio, “Nation’s Jails Struggle With Mentally Ill Prisoners,” Sept. 05, 2011