Many who have mental health issues do not get services they need while incarcerated
Original Source: npr.org
DeVonte Jones began to show signs of schizophrenia as a teenager. His first public episode was nine years ago at a ballgame at Wavering Park, in Quincy, Ill.
“He snapped out and just went around and started kicking people,” says Jones’ mother, Linda Colon, who now lives in a Chicago suburb.
The police were called. Jones was arrested, charged with aggravated battery and placed in Adams County Jail. Colon says Jones had no recollection of what happened.
Her son got out on probation and went to therapy. He started on medications, but Colon says they didn’t help. When he got caught self-medicating with marijuana, he ended up back in jail.
Jones has been in and out of the criminal justice system ever since. He’s among the estimated half-million people incarcerated in the U.S. who have a serious mental illness.
According to federal data from 2011 to 2012, more than 40 percent of jail inmates reported having been told by a mental health professional that they had a mental health disorder. And while about 1 in 4 jail inmates met the threshold for having serious psychological distress at the time of the survey, only about a third of those were receiving treatment for it.
In recent years, county jails across the nation have taken steps to try to keep inmates with mental illness, like Jones, from coming back. One approach involves stepping up mental health screening, coupled with efforts to get inmates plugged into community-based treatment after they are released.
Such efforts require often-unprecedented collaboration between those on the front lines of mental health and criminal justice. But research shows such collaboration is key to addressing the problems many jails face when they become their communities’ largest psychiatric facilities.
Colon believes the jail conditions her son faced caused his condition to worsen. He lost access to his medications there, she says, and would experience episodes related to his schizophrenia that landed him alone in a cell.
“But if you’re a mental illness patient, there’s no way to calm yourself down without any kind of medication or therapy,” says Colon, who has been in jail herself and is currently out on probation.
Adams County Sheriff Brian Vonderhaar says he can’t comment on Jones’ situation because he didn’t work in the jail back then. But, he says, all the Adams County inmates are screened for mental illness, and medical providers there administer medications as needed. Inmates who are suicidal may indeed be placed alone in a cell, he acknowledges, with nothing but a mat and a garment they wouldn’t be able to use to harm themselves.
Real change needed
Efforts to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness need to involve the jail system, says Richard Cho of the Council for State Governments Justice Center, because it is “the front end of the criminal justice system.”
In 2015, the CSG Justice Center, together with the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, launched the Stepping Up Initiative to help jails reduce the number of inmates with mental illness.
More than 400 counties have passed resolutions to join the program, which promotes the use of evidence-based screening tools to identify inmates who have a serious mental illness. Inmates who screen positive are referred to a clinician for a follow-up assessment.
The CSG Justice Center provides counties with technical assistance to collect data to understand the scope of their problem and determine whether efforts to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness are working.