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Survey: Jails Hold Ten Times As Many Mentally Ill As Hospitals

According to a new survey, U.S. jails hold ten times more mentally ill individuals than hospitals. Jamycheal Mitchell died in jail after being arrested for stealing five dollars worth of snacks. (Youtube/the Mitchell family)
According to a new survey, U.S. jails hold ten times more mentally ill individuals than hospitals. Jamycheal Mitchell died in jail after being arrested for stealing five dollars worth of snacks. (Youtube/the Mitchell family)
July 18, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. -- U.S. jails are overrun with mentally ill inmates and are ill-equipped to deal with the problem, according to a recent survey of corrections staff. The study found that on average 16 percent of prisoners in the U.S. correctional system are seriously mentally ill.

The study’s authors estimate that on any given day there are as many as 350,000 mentally ill inmates in the U.S. - ten times the number in U.S. hospitals. According to Cook County, Ill. Sheriff Tom Dart, it may be the most thoughtless and inhumane way to treat mental illness.

"You're putting an individual in a four-by-eight concrete room, often with someone else,” Dart said. “And then you may or may not be giving them treatment. And then you're surprised that when the day comes to release them, their issues are greater than they were when they came in."

Only about 40 percent of mentally ill inmates receive medication of any kind, the study found, and slightly fewer receive other forms of psychiatric treatment. Most jail staff also reported that the number of mentally ill prisoners is rising.

The survey, conducted by Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center, is the first in 20 years.

Three mentally ill Virginians have died recently while in custody. Some officials cite the high cost of care as a reason more is not being done. Others argue that investing in proper treatment would be cheaper in the long run, reducing the burden on police and jails.

John Snook with the Treatment Advocacy Center said that Virginia has seen this debate before.

Referencing an article he wrote for a state newspaper in 2004, Snook said, “that was before Virginia Tech, that was before the Jamycheal Mitchell case. All of these tragedies happened and unfortunately nothing's been done. Virginia has known about this problem for years."

According to the study’s estimates, there are 250,000 mentally ill people who are homeless, many because they can't be kept in care. Jennifer Hoff, whose adult son spent four years in jail - about half of it in solitary confinement - said that, in spite of being totally incapable of caring for himself, her son was put out of the psychiatric institution where he was placed as a child.

"He got his shoelaces handed back to him and a plane ticket home because he aged into adulthood,” Hoff said. “For young people like him, turning eighteen is quite frankly a death sentence."

To read the full report, visit treatmentadvocacycenter.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA