Study calls prisons, jails America's 'new asylums'

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 7:35 p.m. MDT

A new study points to prisons and jails, calling them America's "new asylums," as they house up to 10 times the number of seriously mentally ill people than state psychiatric hospitals.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new study calls prisons and jails America's "new asylums," as they house up to 10 times the number of seriously mentally ill people than state psychiatric hospitals.

Prisons and jails "are neither equipped nor staffed to handle such problems," according to the Treatment Advocacy Center study released this week. "It is a situation that is grossly unfair to both the inmates and the corrections officials and should be the subject of public outrage and official action."

The Virginia-based nonprofit organization's report calls the Utah State Prison the "largest mental institution in the state," estimating that about 15 percent of its occupants are seriously mentally ill, exhibiting conditions beyond mild depression and more akin to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

County jails, the report states, also contain more mentally ill inmates than is therapeutically recommended.

As of Thursday, the state prison system was holding 2,637 inmates battling some form of mental illness requiring prescription psychotropic medications, which is nearly 38 percent of its total offender population, according to Steven Gehrke, Utah Department of Corrections spokesman.

"It has become well-known that prison systems throughout the United States have sadly become society's de facto mental health facilities," Gehrke said. "While the state prison can adequately handle these issues, we would always like to do more."

Prisons aren't designed to cater to the mentally ill, he said, but unfortunately become the only avenue to treatment for many people.

In Utah, treatment of mentally ill people in jails is mandated and provided through partnerships with local mental health authorities.

While all mentally ill inmates get help during incarceration, jails are "not where they should be getting treatment," said Jeremy Christensen, adult program administrator at the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

"It would be hard to argue that is a healthy environment for anybody," Christensen said. "It's limited just by the nature of the environment."

When a person who has been accused of a crime is found by the courts to be incompetent to face their charges, guilty by reason of insanity or guilty and mentally ill, they are directed to the Utah State Hospital, which has just 100 beds available for the treatment of mentally ill people transported from jails.

The facility, which also treats adults and children with mental illness, provides treatment intended to help restore a person's competency, said Don Rosenbaum, assistant superintendent and director of forensic services at the hospital.

Rosenbaum said the forensic unit at the hospital is "always full" and has a short waiting list. The average length of stay for court-ordered patients is around seven months.

"I think the system works well," he said. "I'd like to think we catch every person and give them what they need, but sometimes individuals do what they want to do."

Last year, the Treatment Advocacy Center released another report, giving Utah top grades on its criminal justice system's dealings with mental illness.

"There are mentally ill individuals who have criminal thinking and personalities and commit real, serious crimes, and you have to watch out for that, but the majority are very harmless and just need treatment that will get them out of the jail system," Christensen said, adding that treatment upon release is also an important part of recovery.

David Litvack, director of Salt Lake County's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, said much is being done to divert mentally ill people from becoming incarcerated in the first place.

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