When is a jail not a jail?

June 17, 2015
Jonathan Thompson, the National Sheriff Association’s elected CEO, is concerned with the prevalence of mental illness in jails.

Jonathan Thompson, the National Sheriff Association’s elected CEO, is concerned with the prevalence of mental illness in jails. And he’s right to worry. On an average day the U.S. jail population is roughly 660,000. Medication and healthcare costs in these facilities exceed upwards $4 billion a year. We’re putting more money into jails than hospitals and mental healthcare and it’s taking a toll on deputies and sheriffs, taxpayers, and most importantly the inmate who repeatedly travels through this unfortunate and unforgiving revolving door.

The very practice of housing persons with mental illnesses radically changes operations. Imagine: you’ve hired someone to be a jailer or a deputy but now you’re asking them to be a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, attendant, nurse and first aid assistant, too. “We’re asking our people to do an extraordinarily large job with a very limited budget and education background…and ultimately putting terrific liability on them personally and professionally,” says Thompson.

Thompson and groups like the National Institute of Corrections recognize that a growing number of mentally ill offenders have strained the correctional systems and urge better communication and collaboration on the issue to get these folks the help they need. Not to mention, this is specialized policing at a time when many states continue to cut mental health service funding. The burden, then, falls to jails and corrections centers that are ill equipped to handle the job.

LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit was recently praised as a model for the nation to follow. MEU brings together professionals from different segments of healthcare and public safety to work as one team. Officers are given the tools they need to diffuse potentially explosive encounters with people who are in the midst of crisis, and the initiative diverts hundreds of people each year to treatment rather than to jail. Other agencies are doing crisis intervention exercises with corrections staff focusing on this segment of the inmate population—they may enlist actors and walk through different scenarios to gain a better understanding of these conditions and how to respond.

Awareness is getting better on the public safety side. But will awareness be enough?

Training programs in jails and strategic upgrades in facilities like mental illness wards, improved security and video visitation can greatly improve the experience of these inmates as they ‘serve time’. Cognizant officers and improved monitoring can even save lives ... but it’s no long-term solution to a problem that continues its climb to the top of public awareness.

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