How Jails are Failing the Mentally Ill
The Death Of Victoria Gray: How Texas Jails Are Failing Their Most Vulnerable Captives
Think Progress has written one of the most comprehensive and evidence-based articles on the issue of suicide and mental illness in prisons that I have read to date. Writer Erica Hellerstein has put together a story of not only Texas’ failure of treating mentally ill inmates, but the need for our country as a whole to more seriously address this issue.
Paton was interviewed for this article to explain how mentally ill inmates are treated in jail, and his own personal experiences of his treatment behind bars. Erica ties Paton’s knowledge, along with other case studies, into the failure of many jails to properly follow mental illness guidelines, which has resulted from the US prison system becoming the largest mental health hospitals in the country. This is an excellent article that should be read and shared.
Type “mental illness,” “jails,” and “health care providers” into Google and a number of headlines will pop up: “When did prisons become acceptable mental healthcare facilities?,” “Jails are America’s largest mental healthcare providers,” “Inside a mental hospital called jail.”
These days, it’s regularly said that prisons and jails have become the nation’s de-facto mental health providers. That this has become an untenable situation for the criminal justice system shouldn’t come as a surprise; obviously, jails and prisons are not mental health treatment centers, nor were they ever intended to be.
Forty years after Abramson’s prophecy, the number of people with mental illness forced into jails and prisons across the U.S. is nothing short of harrowing. According to a recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, there are ten times as many people in prisons and jails with serious mental illness than in state psychiatric hospitals. In at least 44 states, there are more people behind bars with serious mental illnesses than in the largest state psychiatric hospital. Moreover, they are more likely to be sexually assaulted, beaten, abused, and placed in solitary confinement.
“Emptying America’s mental hospitals without ensuring that the discharged patients received appropriate treatment in the community has been an egregious mistake. For the approximately half of discharged patients who have ended up homeless or in jails and prisons, it has been a personal tragedy,” the Treatment Advocacy Center asserted in an earlier report. “Although deinstitutionalization was well intentioned, the failure to provide for the treatment needs of the patients has turned this policy into one of the greatest social disasters of the 20th century.”
Those conditions have helped to create a system that’s often crisis driven, where people who may have previously been admitted to state psychiatric hospitals now only receive care when they’re in the middle of an immediate mental health crisis. Meanwhile, the care that they do end up receiving tends to be short-term — like a hospital emergency room, or in many cases, jail.
Paton Blough, the mental health advocate with bipolar disorder, was arrested six times over the course of three years — often because people would call the police on him during times of psychosis. “I had episode after episode,” he recalled. “I did all of the extreme things you read about a bipolar person doing.”
Although Blough didn’t have a criminal record before his arrests, he ended up receiving two felony convictions while he was incarcerated — one for spitting on a jail officer and another for threatening a sheriff. “I felt like there were several instances when I was not taken care of,” he said. “I lost everything.”
Unfortunately, Blough’s story is not uncommon: Half of all previously incarcerated people with mental illness are rearrested and returned to prisons. “Once you get in the system, it’s very difficult for you to get out,” he said. “People have to understand that we don’t lock people up for cancer or diabetes, but we do for the medical condition of mental illness… It’s a big massive problem of epidemic proportions that we’re dealing with in the most incarcerated nation in the world.”