SWINDLE COLUMN: Jails should not be mental health facilities

Published 9:30 am Friday, August 4, 2023

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At this time, it really got us thinking: How is it this person has come to jail to get active for (mental health) services.” – Sheriff Ray Scifres, Hockley County, Texas

West Georgia – 2018 – A client, who has a dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction, would like to stop using cocaine. He also needs help with some of the other issues that feed into why he uses this drug and others.

He has schizophrenia and other serious mental health disorders.

He also has untreated autism that he has struggled with his whole life. He learns in a non-verbal way.

His psychiatric care takes place in jail or prison. The crowded environment makes his condition worse.

He is so ashamed about his situation that he leaves his son with family rather than a mother who is also struggling.

2023 – Now 29, cycled through Georgia’s criminal justice system from 2015 through his recent last release from jail, it is only a matter of time before he gets arrested again.

He is not alone in his cyclical situation.

Jails – Mental Health Facilities

Georgia has 159 counties. I would bet that all 159 sheriffs would agree that jails should not be mental health institutions. Jails are for punishment and pre-trial detention; not mental health care.

The Fulton Co. jail’s former medical administrator, George Herron, estimated as many as 60 to 80% of people incarcerated in the county’s jail system suffer from psychiatric disabilities, leading him to characterize the Fulton County Jail as “the new mental health hospital.”

The Fulton County Jail is called Georgia’s largest de facto mental health facility because of the high prevalence of mentally ill detainees. Often, they have no place else to go until a crime is committed.

Cost of Incarceration

One way to calculate the average cost per inmate is to take the total state spending on prisons and divide it by the average daily prison population.

Georgia spends over $20,000 on each inmate annually, on average, to staff and maintain the prisons and provide all prison services, according to a 2015 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. Why are we not putting at least half of this money toward the treatment of the mentally ill.

The Future

November – 2022 – House Speaker David Ralston is close to passing away. Before he does, he knows that he was a major driving force behind the bipartisan push to address mental health shortages in Georgia. He recognizes that mental health issues affect almost every family in Georgia when he sponsored HB 1013, which passed with unanimous bipartisan support.

“Mental health intersects with public safety,” Ralston said. “It drains our economy of productivity. At its most basic level, it allows hopelessness to win the battle for the future and bring pain to those who are left to suffer the consequences.”

Another conservative, Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens, has taken action. He knows that many of the detainees in his facility would not be jailed if they had access to quality mental health services.

Last November, the jail added a full-time psychiatrist and nurses trained in behavioral health to the detention center’s staff. Cobb’s jail is the first in the state to do so.

Owens said that “From intake to discharge, we are committed to getting our detainees the help they need so they never have to walk back through our doors again.”

Mental Health Courts

Governor Deal’s main legacy is changing the criminal justice; particularly with establishing accountability courts. Most counties have a mental health court. These courts accept mentally ill defendants and monitor their drug screens, medications levels, and provide many more services that reduce the costly recidivism rate.

Georgia is awakening to the financial, public safety and humanity aspects of keeping the mentally ill in jails/prisons. Centuries show that it just does not work. When released, an untreated person with mental health problems will end up in jail again. It is just a matter of time.

The good news is that the mental health courts are achieving success. This shows that the visions of Gov. Deal and Speaker Ralston are coming to fruition.

Georgians have not yet seen a challenge that we cannot overcome. While progress might be slow, our state will soon lead the country in how to deal with mentally ill people in a way that protects everyone.