Friday, January 25, 2008

How many jails can the country actually hold?

By David Webb - The Rare Reporter
Jan 24, 2008, 22:22

Maybe more thought should be given to deterring crime

Every morning as I head for work I pass the construction site of the new south tower of the Dallas County jail complex at Industrial Boulevard and Commerce Street.

It never fails to give me the creeps.

Dallas County officials tout the new building, which is scheduled for completion by January 2009, as a long, overdue improvement. The new addition to the Lou Sterrett Justice Center will house 2,304 prisoners in a total of 36 pods of 64 inmates each, according to Dallas County Judge Jim Foster’s January 2008 newsletter, Issue 1, of what he plans to be a regular publication by his office.

Each pod will have a detention supervising office, and each floor will have medical exam facilities. It will replace two existing jails that operate at offsite locations, eliminating the need to transfer prisoners to and from the county complex, which also includes the Frank Crowley Court Building.

The price tag for the new jail — $62 million — an astronomical sum that will undoubtedly rise before completion.

Unfortunately for me, when I look at the construction site I don’t see progress in motion. What I see is an ugly, intimidating structure that will be used to warehouse people who have lost their way in life.

To me it is a grim reminder of how badly society has failed the disadvantaged — poverty-stricken children and the mentally ill to name a couple of examples.

Rather than using our resources to intervene in the lives of children who suffer from poverty and neglect and are often the victim of crimes themselves, we are using it to build jails and prisons where they can be locked away when they reach an age where rehabilitation is — if not impossible — highly unlikely. Poverty and mental illness are inextricably linked to crime, and we are using our resources to punish people instead of trying to help them overcome their disadvantages.

The criminal justice system has become an enormous economic machine, providing profits for everyone from the construction worker at the site of the new jail to the judges sitting on the benches in the courtrooms who will decide the fates of the inhabitants of the new structure — not to mention the battalions of police officers on the street who are needed to inject people into the system. The sheer number of employees and entrepreneurs engaged in the operation of the criminal justice system is mind boggling.

The truth is you couldn’t dismantle it without throwing the country into an economic crisis.

I don’t have an answer for this conundrum, nor is it a unique observation. A lawyer who was involved in social justice issues first brought it to my attention years ago when the Lou Sterret Justice Center was a new building. Since then, the problem has gotten only worse.

What I’d like to see now is for the politicians and officials my local and federal taxes help employ searching for different solutions than merely locking people up for various periods of time to keep them out of trouble. Surely, there’s a limit to how many jails and prisons can be built.

I’m all for law and order and I understand safe and humane facilities must be maintained for detaining criminals, but I’d far rather see my taxes being spent to feed and house children, the elderly, the mentally ill and others who are helpless.

Jail is not the place for that.

Maybe that would be a good topic for a story in Foster’s newsletter — what he thinks could be done to prevent people from becoming criminals rather than him citing the construction of a new jail and the hiring of new jail guards as accomplishments in 2007.

It’s just a thought.


This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 25, 2008

Mentally ill said to need treatment, not prison

Thursday, January 24, 2008

By Pat Shellenbarger
The Grand Rapids Press

With the state Corrections Department gobbling up more than $2 billion a year -- one-fifth the state's budget -- a statewide coalition of judges, police, social service officials and others say there is a better way to spend taxpayers' money -- treat the mentally ill rather than lock them up.

Citing what it called "a growing statewide crisis," the new group, called the Michigan Partners in Crisis, today released a list of six initiatives it said would improve treatment of the mentally ill, reduce the state's prison population, save money and lower the crime rate.

"It's a wiser investment of state dollars," said Michael Reagan, a member of the coalition's advisory board and president of the nonprofit Proaction Behavioral Health Alliance, based in Grand Rapids.

Besides, he said, "It's the humane thing to do, and it makes our communities safer."

While no recent figures are available, coalition members believe more than half the inmates in Michigan's prisons and jails suffer some form of mental illness, often undiagnosed and untreated. That is a partly due to a decision by state officials over the past few decades to "deinstitutionalize" most mental patients by closing state mental hospitals.

While the coalition is not calling for reopening of the mental hospitals, it said the state failed to provide enough resources to treat the mentally ill in communities. As a result, some commit crimes and end up incarcerated, where they usually do not get proper treatment and often deteriorate.

"We have not deinstitutionalized the mentally ill," said Mark Reinstein, a coalition member and president of the Mental Health Association of Michigan. "We have 'transititutionalized' them," shifting them from hospitals to jails and prisons.

The coalition, asserting that most crimes committed by the mentally ill are nonviolent, called for the creation of mental health courts that would send mentally ill offenders into treatment programs rather than jails and prisons.

Diagnosing and treating mental illness before a crime occurs would be even better, Reinstein said.

For those who still need to be incarcerated, the state should improve treatment programs in the prisons to stem the high recidivism rate for mentally ill inmates, he said.

"These aren't places that fit in with treatment," Reinstein said. "What we have now isn't anywhere near what it ought to be. We have a horrible epidemic problem here."

The group called on state leaders to commission an independent study to determine how common mental disorders are in Michigan's county jails, state prisons and juvenile facilities. Last fall, the state Corrections Department estimated 16 percent of its inmates have been diagnosed with mental health problems.

"I think that's a low number," said C. Patrick Babcock, former director of Michigan's Department of Mental Health.

Deinstitutionalization was a good idea, he said, but, after the state closed most mental hospitals, "too many people fell through the cracks."

He cited the case of Timothy Souders, who died of dehydration while shackled to a bed in a Jackson prison in August 2006. Because of his mental illness, Souders, 21, could not follow prison rules, and his condition deteriorated while he was locked in solitary confinement.

The coalition is calling for an end to solitary confinement as punishment for mentally ill inmates.

Nationally, about 64 percent of county jail inmates and 56 percent of state prison inmates suffer some form of mental illness, the group said, and 75 percent of those in juvenile facilities have emotional disorders.

The current state budget includes $400,000 for a study to determine what portion of the state's 51,000 prison inmates are mentally ill.

The last independent study two decades ago found 40 percent of Michigan's prison inmates had some form of mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

A 1998 study by Wayne State University found that 45 percent of Kent County's jail inmates were mentally ill.

State prison officials generally agree with the coalition's goals, Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said.

"We've always said we don't think prison is the best place to treat the mentally ill," he said. "We've said all along we have to take who we get, and we do the best job that we can before releasing them.

Coalition goals

The goals of Michigan Partners in Crisis are:

Inform the public and policy makers about the impact of untreated mental illness.

Spearhead independent analysis of the prevalence of mental disorders in state prisons, jails and juvenile justice facilities; determine treatment needs.

Work with the state to improve mental health diversion services.

Get the state to suspend -- rather than terminate -- Medicaid for incarcerated people with mental illness.

End solitary confinement as punishment for mentally ill inmates.

Give state Department of Community Health greater authority to manage and provide treatment for mentally ill inmates.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mental Health Advocates Meet in Tampa

01/10/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Evening News Thursday Listen to this entire show:

There is such widespread incarceration of people with mental illness that jails have become the largest mental health care providers in many communities, according to a report released in November by the Florida Supreme Court.

The report on how the state’s courts and social support systems manage citizens with mental illness recommends that mentally ill patients be moved out of jails and into treatment facilities that are almost always less expensive. An advocacy group for people with mental illness or substance abuse, Florida Partners in Crisis, held a board meeting today in Tampa.

John Petrila is a professor with the Florida Mental Health Institute (FMHI) at the University of South Florida. He co-chaired the Policy, Legislative, and Finance Workgroup for the Supreme Court’s report.

Michele Saunders is the executive director of Florida Partners in Crisis, which she called a diverse coalition coming together with one purpose, to better fund the mental health and substance abuse system. One way to do that, according to Saunders, is to focus on legislation in Tallahassee, including a renewal of the Criminal Justice Mental Health Substance Abuse Reinvestment Act.

Saunders said increasing reinvestment funding is one of the recommendations in the Florida Supreme Court report and Florida Partners in Crisis will seek funding from the Legislature for others.

John Petrila said the Legislature has to follow up on the Supreme Court’s recommendations.

Saunders agrees that investing in up-front services will save the state money in the long run.

Mark Speiser is a circuit court judge in Broward County and is chair of the Florida Partners in Crisis Board. He said it was important for people with mental illnesses to have access to appropriate treatment.

One way to keep people with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system and get them needed care is through mental health courts. The country’s first mental health court was established in Broward County in 1997.

Within the next few months, Hillsborough County will begin a felony mental health court to reduce the criminalization of mental illness, headed by Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Debra Benhke.

Benhke said there are advantages to having a mental health court as opposed to keeping everyone in the criminal court system.

Judge Speiser said the Mental Health Court in Broward County serves as a successful model for the one in Hillsborough.

The group Mental Health America of Greater Tampa Bay will host a Mental Health Brainstorming Council on Saturday, Feb. 2 from 9 a.m. until noon at St. Lawrence Catholic Church on Himes Avenue in Tampa.

For information on the Tampa Bay Region Mental Health Brainstorming Council II meeting Feb. 2, contact Scott F. Barnett at (813) 972-2618.