More people with serious mental illnesses are ending up in county jails across the country , a recent report from Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center shows.
The report, which included survey data from 230 sheriffs’ departments from 39 states, including Oklahoma, outlined the challenges that jail staffs face in overseeing this population. For one, inmates with untreated serious mental illnesses are more likely to be victimized by other inmates, attempt suicide and lash out at jail staff, according to the report.
As the report notes:
Caring for the seriously mentally ill in county jails was particularly challenging for law enforcement staff, who have limited training in dealing with these inmates. Almost half of the jails reported that only 2 percent or less of the initial training they provide to their staff and sheriff’s deputies was allotted to issues specifically dealing with seriously mentally ill inmates, and 60.4 percent reported that only two hours or less of annual training were allotted to such issues.
Over the past few years, Sheriff John Whetsel has dubbed the Oklahoma County jail as the state's largest mental health facility. Thus far this year, nine inmates have died at the jail, including four inmates who died by suicide.
Overall, Oklahoma has one of the highest rates in the United States of adults with serious mental illness — but has historically spent little on the state's mental health system.
This has placed an enormous strain on the state's criminal justice system, with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections seeing a continued increase in the number of people with mental illnesses entering prison. As state health leaders have repeatedly noted, sending an Oklahoman with a serious mental illness to jail or prison is the costliest form of "treatment."
The Treatment Advocacy Center report shows how difficult it is for jails to treat inmates with serious mental illnesses. The feedback from jail staffers from across the United States is startling and honest.
One anonymous jail staffer wrote that, in their community: "In a small jail the increase of mentally ill inmates has been a cause for alarm, both for the jail staff and myself. We are now forced to try to deal with these problems without the help of [the county’s mental health and developmental disability agency] due to the latest budget cuts."
Another person wrote: "Jails and jailers are not equipped to deal with these issues [caused by the seriously mentally ill inmates]. We are not doctors, and county jails can’t afford to have one on staff."
And another person acutely points out: "Jails have become the ‘asylum of last resort’ and more intensive engagement by staff is required as a result."
"Mental illness is discussed at our annual school but no real answers are resolved. Which is that these individuals don’t belong in the jails[,] they belong in hospitals!" another person wrote.
"I believe this is the point[:] we are not doctors or nurses[,] we are not trained to deal with some of these people, they do not belong in the jails," another jail staff member wrote.
Posted on Wed, July 20, 2016
by Nate Fisher