A jail is no place for the mentally ill

Article by: RICH STANEK

The largest mental-health facilities in the United States are not hospitals — they are jails: in L.A. County, in Chicago’s Cook County, and on New York’s Rikers Island. Locally on any given day, the Hennepin County Medical Center Psychiatric Inpatient facility holds fewer mentally ill individuals than we hold in the Hennepin County jail, and quite frankly, many of these folks do not belong in our jail.

Over 35,000 inmates each year are booked into the Hennepin County jail. The Sheriff’s Office manages and operates the jail, and is responsible for the safe and secure custody of approximately 750 inmates each day as they await the resolution of their criminal charges by the court. We provide food and required medical care. We securely transport inmates to court appearances and to other facilities as determined by the courts. We estimate that as many as 25 percent to 30 percent of inmates suffer from mental illness.

Photo: Rick Nease, MCT/Detroit Free Press

The jail has medical and nursing staff who regularly check on inmates and provide prescribed medications and mental-health screenings. The Sheriff’s Office created a mental-health unit to allow for appropriate identification and placement of inmates with mental illness. Sheriff’s Office personnel receive extensive training on custody and safety issues for mentally ill inmates. The program has won a national award for its innovative and humane approach.

Even so, we know that a jail is not the right place to house the mentally ill for extended periods of time. In particular, I am concerned about criminal defendants with persistent and severe mental illness who have been determined by the court to be incompetent to stand trial, and those who have been civilly committed for up to six months at a time (because they are mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others). These inmates have been evaluated by licensed psychologists and have been ordered to the care and custody of the Minnesota State Department of Human Services (DHS). Yet, the Sheriff’s Office often is unable to make transfers, because there is a shortage of space at a suitable treatment facility. As a result, many of the mentally ill inmates stay in our jail for weeks and even months awaiting transfer and placement.

As an example, “T,” a 28-year-old male, was arrested by Richfield police and charged with felony possession of a firearm; he was booked into the jail in July. He suffers from grossly disturbed behavior and faulty perceptions, and he poses a substantial likelihood of causing physical harm. He was evaluated by a court-appointed forensic psychologist and was determined by the court in mid-August to be incompetent to stand trial. After further evaluation, the criminal charges against T were stayed in late October, and he was committed by order of the court to the custody of the Commissioner of Human Services for inpatient hospitalization for six months.

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