Sunday, January 3, 2010

Decriminalizing mental illness

January 03, 2010 12:37 am

— By Jennifer Jacob Brown

Every day in the Lauderdale County Detention Facility, jail workers have to run more than just a prison for criminals. Though they lack the training and resources to do so, jail workers are forced to run a prison for the mentally ill as well.

Meanwhile, mentally ill patients are often in a state of terrified shock when they are thrown in jail because there are not enough beds in mental hospitals. As they await transfer, they are generally not seen by anyone with expertise in mental health.

The mentally ill that fill jail cells are not restricted to those awaiting beds at a mental hospital. Often, the mentally ill are in jail because they were charged with crimes their mental illness caused them to commit. With no form of mental health rehabilitation in jails, experts say their rate of recidivism is high.

But a local group of mental health workers and concerned citizens is working to change the laws and attitudes that contribute to the criminalization of mental illness. The group meets once a month, and this month they will be part of a seminar meant to educate the public and lawmakers about how criminalizing mental illness hurts both the mentally ill and the community in general.

The seminar "Treatment, Not Jail: Strategies to Prevent Criminalization of Individuals with Mental Illness", will be held Jan. 11 at the MSU-Meridian campus and is free and open to the public.

The seminar will cover both why its important to keep the mentally ill out of jail and how that can be accomplished.

One local official who's ready to see it accomplished is Sheriff Billy Sollie, whose responsibilities include running the county jail.

"The staff and facilities (at the Lauderdale County Detention Facility) were not designed, trained, or equipped deal with people who are suffering from mental illness issues, and it puts a strain on the employees and the facilities," he said.

At any given time, he said, the jail may have no mentally ill patients awaiting transfer to a mental hospital, or it might have as many as seven. "Only one," said Sollie, "creates a huge issue for the staff," and also takes up space
These numbers do not include mentally ill people who are convicted of minor crimes and sent to jail, rather than a mental health facility, over and over again. Sollie said one local person who is mentally ill has been arrested more than 30 times in the past two years, and another has been arrested 25 times during the same time period.
Sollie said getting the mentally ill out of jail and into hospitals isn't just about taking the strain off of jail workers, it's about treating people right.

"It would be providing care instead of incarceration... not hiding a problem by incarcerating it, but providing care for a resident," he said.

But keeping the mentally ill out of jail won't be as easy as 1,2,3 - Mississippi law will have to be changed.

Kristen Owen, a therapist at Weems Mental Health and president of the Meridian affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Health - Mississippi, said that under current law, law enforcement officers don't have the authority to deem someone mentally ill and take them to an assessment facility. Their only alternative is to arrest mentally ill people who are causing a disturbance in the facility and take them to jail.

Last year, State Rep. Alyce Clarke (D-Hinds County) tried to change that, at least in Hinds County, by introducing a bill into the house that would have allowed Hinds County to create Crisis Intervention Teams - law enforcement officers trained to recognize and deal with the mentally ill and authorized to take them to an assessment facility.

The bill did not pass, but Bill Kehoe, director of NAMI Mississippi, said there is now more support for a CIT pilot program in Hinds County, including the support of the Mississippi Sheriff's Association, and NAMI is pushing to get a new bill through the legislature.

Rep. Clarke could not be reached for comment.

Owen said the Meridian affiliate of NAMI is hoping the bill will pass and will lead to legislation allowing the rest of Mississippi to use Crisis Intervention Teams or other jail diversion program as well.

The current system, Owen said, is downright inhumane. "We don't realize that these people are people," she said. "We don't lock granny's up that have Alzhiemer's, we give them treatment. But there's such a stigma associated with mental illness that we put them in jail."

"Many of our prisons," she added, "are the biggest state hospitals, and this problem of people being in jail gets worse when they close the state hospitals."
Recently, Governor Haley Barbour proposed closing some mental health facilities, including parts of East Mississippi State Hospital, to help ease the state's budget woes.

According to NAMI, a 1999 DOJ report showed that 16 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons at that time suffered from severe mental illness. This, they said, means that there are approximately 283,000 people with severe mental illness in state and federal prisons at any given time.

Owen said trying to keep the mentally ill out of jails is not the same thing as being soft on crime. Getting treatment for the mentally ill, she said, is of benefit for the mentally ill themselves, the sheriff's departments that run the jails, and the community as a whole.

"We're not trying to get people out of punishment for their crimes," she said. "We're trying to identify people who are doing these things strictly because of their mental illness," she said. "We need to do what would get them better, and that's get them treatment."

If Mississippi allows Crisis Intervention Team programs, law enforcement agencies would partner with mental health agencies.

In incidents between law enforcement and a mentally ill person, a CIT trained officer would be able to take that person to the partnering mental health facility, and the mental health experts there would determine whether the person was severely mentally ill and have them admitted to a mental health facility.

Owen said she is hoping that a federal grant could help fund a CIT or jail diversion program, but that such a grant would likely require matching funds.

Owen said she hopes local governments will be on board because, "If it's affecting our citizens, it's affecting us as a whole... It's a cycle that continues and people just end up rotting in jail."
Want to go?

What: Seminar "Treatment, Not Jail: Strategies to Prevent Criminalization of
Individuals with Mental Illness" with speaker Margaret Severson, J.D., MSW
When: Monday, January 11, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Where: Kahlmus Auditorium, MSU Meridian, 1000 Hwy 19 N.
Admission: Free and open to the public
Registration: Required by calling Pace Cooke Emmons at (601)483-4821 or emailing by Friday, January 8.


Johnny Utah said...

I'm a PD. On Fri I lost a felony case that should have never gone to trial. Don't know what I can reveal due to A/C but email me for scanned A/A, major mental health issue, need sentencing advocacy.

Venus said...

Thank you very much for your excellent blog on mental illness and the US justice system. Your articles are excellent.

Sadly, there is still so much misunderstanding, stigma, and neglect in our system when it comes to brain illnesses. The information you offer will help people to learn the facts, to understand what's not working, and to see how we can make positive changes.

I hope that you plan to continue the blog and perhaps to include relevant news from other states.