We have written extensively about the problems associated with warehousing our nation's people with mental illness in jails and prisons that are not equipped to treat or deal with their illnesses:
- We featured a four-part series entitled "Where Mental Health and Criminal Justice Collide."
- We created an infographic about mental illness and the justice system.
- We wrote about mental health and the criminal justice system in Oklahoma after the Oklahoma County Jail admitted it was not equipped to house inmates with mental illness.
We know that the state of mental health treatment is at a crisis in the United States. Releasing inmates who have not been adequately treated for mental health issues in prison, and failing to provide those inmates with the resources needed for continued treatment can have deadly consequences.
And it is not just the public safety we need to concern ourselves with. We also need to address inmate safety and the humane and appropriate treatment of inmates with mental illness. If you are the type to say that inmates don't deserve special care after committing a crime, please keep in mind that many of those with mental illness in county jails across the United States have committed only minor crimes, and simply lack the bail money or support to get them out of jail. Others are in jail for drug crimes associated with self-medicating when they do not have resources to obtain proper or adequate mental health treatment.
And then, there are those who shouldn't be in jail in the first place. A case out of Virginia describes the death of a mentally ill jail inmate who was incarcerated after stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. He was held without bond after a judge ordered him to a mental health facility, ostensibly so he could get the treatment he needed. However, as he waited in a cell for four months for a room to open up at the facility, his condition deteriorated. He lost nearly 40 pounds in 4 months. The 6-foot-tall man went from 180 pounds at booking in April to less than 145 pounds when he died in August.
Jail officials say that Jamycheal Mitchell was never denied food and that he never complained about losing weight. But this is a man who was without his schizophrenia medication, who was walking around naked and smearing feces on the wall--what are the odds that he would be able to file a formal complaint about his rapid weight loss. Furthermore, we are talking about a weight loss of 35 pounds in less than four months. Shouldn't his deterioration been easily apparent to jail officials?
Other inmates claim they noticed Mitchell's deteriorating mental and physical condition, including not only the rapid weight loss, but also visible swelling in one leg.
A few weeks before his death, Mitchell was taken to a hospital, with hospital staff noting his weight at 145 pounds and mentioning edema in both legs that could have been indicative of liver problems.
The next day, at a court hearing, the order to transfer the man to a mental health facility was reiterated. Family members were so shocked by the young man's appearance, that one called the jail and demanded that they take him to an emergency room. She was told that he was "fine." A fellow inmate said that Mitchell no longer got out of bed and told jail officials that he was critically ill. Jail officials deny that they were warned about how sick Mitchell seemed to be.
By August 19, he was dead.
Regardless of whether or not the jail failed in treating Mitchell, the fact remains that jails are not and should not be warehouses for the mentally ill. We don't have exact statistics, but it is a safe bet that the number of people without mental illness who are jailed for 4 months for shoplifting a soft drink, a candy bar, and a snack cake is zero.
The jail got at least one thing right: Citing a staff of four to care for 370 inmates with mental illness, associate jail superintendent Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor said, "It is quite a challenge at times with the mentally ill.Our jail has become a de facto mental health facility in lieu of beds being available in the state."
Jails are penal institutions--designed to punish offenders. They were never intended to be holding cells for the mentally ill.
We like to think that the days of caging those with mental illness in bedlam mental institutions are gone; however, is it really any different to lock someone in jail, deny him or her treatment, and watch his or her condition deteriorate to death?
Image Credit: Yuri Samoilov