The new asylums: How Utah traps the mentally ill behind bars

'It is a crisis of unimaginable proportions'

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  • hopingtomakeadifference Orem, UT
    July 21, 2018 11:49 a.m.

    This news is NOT new! It has been going on for decades and meaningful progress has NOT been made in resolving this critical issue. I have a son, diagnosed with schizophrenia, who spent many months in the Utah County Jail in 2006 awaiting a bed at the Utah State Hospital. That son was locked up in an isolated small cell where he became even more distrustful and sick.
    We counseled with attorneys, the State Hospital, doctors, the county jail administrators and anyone we thought might be able to assist. We wrote to the newspapers and reported what was happening. Finally, after this last effort of going public one bed miraculously opened up at the State Hospital. Because we fought constantly and went public in order to seek the best help for our son he did get moved from jail to a hospital.

  • DeborahG Mesa, AZ
    June 4, 2017 10:32 p.m.

    Hmm...and remember all of those news stories in recent years lauding how Utah nearly ended homelessness with the "Housing First" model?

  • illuminated Kansas City, MO
    May 29, 2017 8:13 a.m.

    Perhaps these people are the sane ones, and the rest of us are mentally ill.

  • missflanflan Riverdale, UT
    May 26, 2017 10:10 a.m.

    Deseret News - thank you for bringing attention to this tragic problem in our society. It's time we started seeing people with mental illness for what they are - people with neurobiological disorders - diseases that deserve the same level of attention as breast cancer, heart disease, and sepsis. The effect of mental illness on people and their families is devastating. We can - and must - do better than this.

    To the families who were courageous enough to share their stories - my heart goes out to you. You are living through a nightmare. Time for the rest of us - especially our legislators - to not only be more compassionate, but also to take action. This is a public health crisis, embarrassingly handled by a society that claims to be civilized.

  • Austin Coug Pflugerville, TX
    May 26, 2017 8:59 a.m.

    Powerful story. Thank you Deseret News for some great reporting. I grew up in Utah. Embarrassed and saddened for the broken process that shockingly allows the mentally ill to sit in prison where they only get worse. Shocked that in one case a severely mentally ill individual was actually released back into the community? Utah's system is broken when it comes to the mentally ill. For a state that was based on Christian principles of love, charity and service....this is a black eye and needs to be rectified. The state is failing the mentally ill and i hope this story can lead to some change. I pray for the families in this story and for those impacted around the world by mental illness.

  • shirl Reno, NV
    May 26, 2017 8:25 a.m.

    Over crowding in Utah' s system...under crowding in neighboring states. Such an obvious solution that I'm sure it has been studied many times...but why does is not work?

    When were reciprocal agreements between these states last investigated?

  • ImaUteFan West Jordan, UT
    May 25, 2017 7:28 p.m.

    This story is heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. So very tragic for these families dealing with a loved one's mental illness. We have a 15-year old son who struggles behaviorally and socially and has had anxiety since he was a toddler. He is medicated and has spent the bulk of his growing up years in and out of therapy. I worry daily about what the future holds for him and if he will be able to function in society as a responsible, productive adult. Reading these stories here only adds to my worry. What is to be done with these tortured souls?

  • pattyp Saratoga Springs, UT
    May 25, 2017 6:25 p.m.

    We have a son that has been diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic. He is 38 years old and currently serving 60 days in our county jail. He continues to be in and out of jail. He may end up back at the State Prison for misdemeanor crimes because he doesn't show up for his court dates. People who are schizophrenic don't always understand that they are sick. I have read my sons journals and my heart has broken as I have read his entries trying to make sense of the voices he hears. For awhile he thought we were talking to him telepathically and lying to him when we said we weren't. He takes illegal drugs to quiet the voices and ends up in jail for that also. He is on medication for schizophrenia and treated at Wasatch Mental Health and he is disabled, but we still struggle daily to find answers on how to help and keep him out of jail. Even medicated he is still delusional. People have know idea of the price paid emotionally by a family dealing mental illness. We have 6 children. He is our second oldest. I hope the Deseret News will continue with more articles bringing more light to the plight of our mentally ill and their families. This is only the tip of the ice berg.

  • SLC Grandma Salt Lake City, UT
    May 25, 2017 5:43 p.m.

    Obviously more money, commitment and direction have to be provided to solve this problem which is growing worse every day. This article's depth of research is apparent and sorely needed in order to open our eyes to this black stain on our humanity. A first reaction is why are there not enough beds and outpatient clinics for treatment of the mentally it because they are not revenue producing, oh surely not! We give millions in subsidies to bring in new business but we can't take care of our mentally ill? If we have a budget surplus, this should be the place to put it, expand the state hospital, build more outpatient mental health clinics, and use jails and prisons for the real criminals. The mentally ill should not be trapped in those austere, ill-prepared facilities..they need treatment, not punishment. If Utah advertises itself as an "Elevated" state, it needs to act like one, for its citizens' welfare as a whole, including its vulnerable non-revenue producing ones.

  • Spangs Salt Lake City, UT
    May 25, 2017 4:01 p.m.

    @At long last..
    "Blame the ACLU and liberals for doing away with involuntary confinement"

    Way to go! We needed someone to bring in some partisan rancor into an issue that is entirely non-partisan. FYI, this issue has nothing to do with involuntary confinement. It has to do with beds. Not enough beds means no place to treat anyone requiring help, whether they are involuntarily committed or not.

    In the spirit of working together, I won't mention the administration that presided over the total decimation of our mental health safety net in the 1980's.

  • Tolstoy salt lake, UT
    May 25, 2017 1:53 p.m.

    @at long last. . .

    Ronald Reagan Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1981 repealed repealed President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act which was supposed to continue federal funding for mental health programs and shut down mental institutions. it's not opinion it's not fake news, false narrative, its not the ACLU or however else you want to blame it is historical fact.

  • one old man Ogden, UT
    May 25, 2017 1:31 p.m.

    "Society was much better before the liberal laws regarding these issues were unleashed on our society."

    Reagan was a liberal???

    Remember, it was Ronald Reagan who closed mental hospitals and pushed laws making it nearly impossible for people to be committed involuntarily to hospitals for treatment.

  • John Jackson Sandy, UT
    May 25, 2017 1:25 p.m.

    Wonderful article. Here's hoping the rest of the media take up the story. And, may the Deseret News stay on the story. Wonder what the governor and legislators would have to say.

  • mightymite , 00
    May 25, 2017 12:28 p.m.

    Where are they supposed to be? Living on our sidewalks and panhandling to self medicate? No thank you we have enough of that issue already. We need to start looking at rounding those up of the streets and putting an end to panhandling. Enough is enough. Society was much better before the liberal laws regarding these issues were unleashed on our society. Round em up, commit them, force them into treatment but by all means keep them off the streets. Enough of liberal laws already.

  • turkworks Bountiful, UT
    May 25, 2017 12:26 p.m.

    So in Utah, pedophiles are in jail for a shorter amount of time than mentally ill inmates have to wait to get medical help. No, the state of Utah isn't incompetent!

  • Thomas Thompson SALT LAKE CITY, UT
    May 25, 2017 12:00 p.m.

    This is some of the finest reporting I've ever read anywhere on this issue. Many thanks to the Deseret News and it's fine reporters for publishing it.

  • RG Buena Vista, VA
    May 25, 2017 10:34 a.m.

    A few comments:
    1) To Mrs. Norman who said, "I can't, spin his story in a way that would solicit compassion from people." Well, you have my compassion. And more importantly, you and your son have the Lord's compassion and understanding.
    2) If someone was obviously insane when they committed a crime, what is the point of trying to make them sane so they can stand trial? Their state of mind when the crime was committed should be the key factor.
    3) There is this movement to move the Utah state prison to an area near the airport. I'm not sure the real reason was ever adequately explained. Just so the area where the prison now sits can be developed? I suggest instead of building a new prison, that the land instead be used for a new state hospital.
    4) I agree with At Long Last.

  • Spangs Salt Lake City, UT
    May 25, 2017 10:17 a.m.

    The presentation of some of these numbers are a bit misleading. The reason Arizona has no forensic wait list is because all state hospital beds are for "forensic" patients, i.e. those that are coming through the jails. That means that all "civil" patients, i.e. mentally ill homeless or those not committed with a crime are on their own and have nowhere to go.

    Utah has been very good in managing their mentally ill homeless population as a result of making beds open for "civil" patients. However, there can be no doubt that the State Hospital is understaffed and underfunded. I urge our elected leaders to do what it takes to care for these extremely vulnerable members of our community.

  • aghast SYRACUSE, UT
    May 25, 2017 9:36 a.m.

    This is the saddest story I have read in years. The governor and legislators have definitely let us down by doing things the "Utah way" and ignoring this silent minority. Just because this effects fewer of us than would vote for them this issue is being ignored. This is a shame on us and society for not providing for the needs of these people.

  • at long last. . . Kirksville , MO
    May 25, 2017 8:57 a.m.

    goodnight-goodluck - You are sadly, but likely deliberately, misinformed. Blame the ACLU and liberals for doing away with involuntary confinement which had the insane committed to asylums. Now, involuntary commitment is no longer allowed. That is why they are on the streets and in cells, not Reagan era changes.

  • CitizenJ Park City, UT
    May 25, 2017 8:59 a.m.

    Thank you very much Deseret News for developing and publishing this story. I was shocked and extraordinarily saddened. I needed to know about this situation. We all did.

    Time for us to take responsibility. Please forward a link to this story to your State and Federal Representatives and Senators. Tell them we cannot claim the virtues or potential benefits of greater State control over health care with this egg on Utah's face.

  • samhill Salt Lake City, UT
    May 25, 2017 8:30 a.m.

    The most telling part of this very thorough article is the glaring discrepancy in the wait times for competency rulings here in Utah versus its neighboring states, most of which have times of up to a couple weeks with the worst of them being Wyoming at a little over one fourth the time it takes Utah. With comparisons like that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Utah is failing, completely, in this area of public health administration.

    I know something about the problems of mental illness, having several friends and family who have been tragically affected by it. From that experience I am very sympathetic with the poor middle managers of this horrendous situation. The ones who are on the front lines trying to cope with the overwhelming demands of their jobs while being provided woefully inadequate support from the administration. But, it is we, the electorate, who are ultimately responsible. We can and **must** do better.

  • whatsup1 Kekaha, HI
    May 25, 2017 8:23 a.m.

    If this was a physical problem such as SARS there would be an outcry if only 5 people were affected, but because it's a mental problem no funding because we are not sure how to help. Very informative article hopefully it will cause some action.

  • goodnight-goodluck S.L.C., UT
    May 25, 2017 7:53 a.m.

    There used to be community based resources, halfway houses and support centers run by mental health professionals. The Reagan 80's changed all that funding was eliminated and prisons and jails became the defacto providers of mental health services.
    The public would call law enforcers about erratic behavior, law enforcement would transport to a local medical facility where a biopsy would be done of the individuals wallet. Finding no money or valid insurance card it would be deemed nothing can be done for the person here and they would subsequently end up in Jail.
    At the end of the day this problem, like the lack of bed space in the Salt Lake County Jail, and the Salt Lake City Homeless Problem. All require money, lots of money. Some of which could have been had back from the federal government had our legislature chosen expanded medicare. Instead of refusing the federal funding, on the flawed thought process of "what if we commit to it and the feds don't give us the money next year?"

  • DougSegesman Bountiful, UT
    May 25, 2017 6:31 a.m.

    Where else you gonna put them? Regardless of mental conditions, if they are committing crimes they need to be off the streets.

  • byufootballrocks Salt Lake City, UT
    May 25, 2017 6:28 a.m.

    Very grateful to the Deseret News for this powerful story.

    Fixing this tragedy should be the number one priority of the Governor of this state and the legislature, since the situation has gotten much worse under their watch. While this state enjoys a fat surplus of state funds, surely using those funds to build mental health clinics is more than reasonable.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, actually. This is dealing only with those who are supposed to be treated in order to stand trial.

    Two much larger issues are: Should they be tried for crimes in the first place? And, what about the fact that over 50 per cent of all prisoners in Utah jails and the state prison are either mentally ill or on drugs?

    Those who advocate for the "tough on crime" policies in this state ought to take a second look at what really happens on the other side of "lock-em-up." The reality has a way of changing one's perceptions.

  • D.T. Sandy, UT
    May 25, 2017 12:52 a.m.

    I understand that there are no easy solutions to the mental health and crime problems discussed in this article, but I hope we all acknowledge that Utah can do much better. We must insist that policy makers tackle this issue head-on! As the article discusses, other states — our neighbors! — have done far better than us addressing many of these problems. We have no excuse, at the very least, for not following their example.