Efforts lag to help mentally ill prisoners

By ISAAC CONSTANS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite recent efforts, treatment of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons is still inadequate, experts agree.

Up to 64 percent of inmates in Michigan jails have a mental illness, according to an August 2014 report from the office of Gov. Rick Snyder. In Michigan prisons, the figure hovers just above 20 percent.

Stepping Up, a 2-year-old program launched by the National Association of Counties, aims to reduce the number of those with mental illnesses in jails across the state. By closely monitoring the status and collecting data on those with mental illnesses, the program aims to link various groups to solve the issue.

Despite the endorsement of the Michigan Association of Counties, the situation is still bleak.

“It’s to the point where we’re really what I’d call the mental health facilities for the state,” said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. “What’s happened is that the facilities which were closed down in the 80s and ‘90s, those people had to go somewhere. And they’re ending up in county jails.”

Koops said that in any given jail in Michigan, between 40 and 60 percent of inmates are on some sort of medicine for mental illness.

Around 95 percent of convicts had substance abuse associated with a crime, which Koops believes sometimes serves as a form of “self-medicating” to replace the lack of available treatment for mentally ill people.

Nearly 9,400 state prisoners have mental health diagnoses currently, according to the Department of Corrections. Although the Woodland Center Correctional Facility is reserved for prisoners with severe mental illnesses, many with minor impairments remain in mainstream facilities.

Lois DeMott, the founder of the statewide Citizens for Prison Reform, said both the  prison and jail systems are fraught with problems. Between isolation and inadequate evaluation and treatment, mental health conditions can be exacerbated during an inmate’s time.

Chris Gautz, a Department of Corrections communications officer, said the state acknowledged that the quality of services provided in prisons is not preferable to community options, but sentences need to be served.

“Prison walls and prison officers and everything around you, it’s not an ideal setting,” Gautz said. “It’s not conducive to getting you back on a path of getting through your mental illness the best you can. But they have committed a crime that a judge has sentenced them to prison, and so we, by law, have to house them.

“So we do everything we can to help them through that situation and to treat that mental illness as best we possibly can. But we also recognize that it’s not ideal for them. They would probably be much better off if they were treated in the community.”

The incarceration of people with mental illnesses represents a cost to all parties involved, according to Koops.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness calculated the average cost of housing an inmate with mental illness in jail is $31,000, which may not include the entire incarceration cost. Community health services outside of jails cost an average of $10,000.

Gautz said that the disparity was likely due to staff costs associated with prison.

In Michigan, the average cost to prisons per inmate is $35,233, and mentally ill prisoners can cost significantly more, according to Gautz.

For smaller county jails, chartering outside help can be the only possible way to ensure that mental health service obligations are met, Koops said. However, out-of-house treatment could be even pricier.

Additionally, Citizens for Prison Reform found that post-incarceration syndrome plagued many people with mental health issues when finally released from their sentence.

When the conditions of prisoners were not fully treated, there’s a cost to society, as well.

“When people with mental illness are not getting the treatment they need or not getting the treatment for their substance abuse and they wind up in a system that is not set up to treat or care for them, it impacts our entire community,” DeMott said. “When they come out, the question is: How do we think they’re going to be any better?”

Efforts are underway to rehabilitate criminals with mental illnesses, as the Snyder administration appointed a Mental Health and Wellness Commission that offered its recommendations.

The Sheriffs’ Association is looking at developing special mental health treatment centers as offshoots of jails.

However, the best solution for mental illness might come before people reach the courtroom. Crisis Intervention Teams run by local police departments work to identify people with mental illness before a crime is committed. Pilot programs in Kalamazoo, Oakland and Marquette, among other places, have resulted in successful referrals to community treatment centers.

Despite a general acknowledgment of problems in mental illness treatment in correctional facilities, little progress has been made. DeMott said the system needs an “overhaul.”

Koops said the current condition represents a societal failure to people with mental illnesses.

“We’ve looked at mental health and mental health issues with a stigma,” Koops said. “If somebody breaks their arm, you go to the doctor and get it fixed, and nobody thinks anything about it. But I’ll tell you, you sure don’t want to admit you have a mental health issue because there’s a stigma attached to it.”