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

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

"There is a lot of effort to recognize that the mentally ill are disproportionately impacted and equally disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system," Litvack said.

Various programs, including a mobile crisis outreach team and other interventions, are helping to get people in the hands of trained mental health professionals. Utah, Christensen said, offers one of the more comprehensive mental health systems in the country.

After recently visiting a handful of county jails, he said, "In every case, the sheriffs and jail management were very interested in figuring out better ways to address this issue because they don't want their jails full of people who shouldn't be there."

The center's study takes issue with states where there is a lack of beds for mentally ill inmates to be treated efficiently and correctly, revealing that state mental hospitals held 558,922 patients at their maximum census in 1955. Today, they hold approximately 35,000 beds, a dwindling number largely driven by funding.

The report also points to the adverse aspects of incarceration for an individual with serious mental illness, including maltreatment and victimization in many cases, and solitary confinement and attempted suicide or suicide in others.

"Because treatment of mental illness is often not available behind bars, symptoms often get worse, sometimes leading to self-mutilation," the report states. "Now that we have effective treatments available, we continue to confine these individuals but in prisons and jails where the treatments are largely not available. We characterize seriously mentally ill individuals as having a thinking disorder, but surely it is no worse than our own."

Utah prisons and jails have the ability to treat mentally ill inmates with various types of therapy, as well as some medications. However, many psychotropic medications are controlled substances, and jails have policies against such drugs.

Counties also have their own policies in dealing with mentally ill inmates, some contracting with private companies to offer care and others partnering with resources available in the community.

Christensen said a good public mental health care system has the potential to help those who can't access private care, which sometimes ends up being people desperate enough to commit crimes. He said there is help for anyone suffering a mental illness.

"Evidence is really showing that good treatment and recovery is possible for mental illness and good treatment in jails is possible," Christensen said, adding that the state's mental health court program is "proving that it's a solvable problem," taking several systems working together to be successful.

"When you talk about recovery, I think you can, in most cases, be more optimistic than we've been in the past about people recovering to a point of being able to function substantially well in the community," he said. "You're always going to have a small group that is very difficult to bring to that point, but across the board, people can function and recover much more than they are right now."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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