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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jail is no Place for the Mentally Ill

According to a 2008 Virginia state mental health commission report, an estimated 15 percent of inmates in our prisons and jails are suffering from some form of mental illness. Since the number of patient beds in state mental institutions like Western State Hospital has been drastically reduced through the deinstitutionalization initiated in Virginia several decades ago, available space for mentally ill adults in such facilities has dropped from over 10,000 to fewer than 2000.

Unfortunately, far too many of these citizens have ended up in prison as a result of their inappropriate behaviors or threats of harm to themselves or others. Our jails and prisons are ill-equipped to handle such cases.

For example, in dealing with inmates who are suicidally depressed, our local jail has seen itself having only one of two options, the restraint chair or the padded isolation cell.

The restraint chair is one in which an inmate is strapped and kept in an upright position for hours on end, without access to mental health treatment or any kind of normal human interaction.

The padded isolation room, unlike a regular solitary confinement cell, has no cot or mattress and no sink or commode, only a hole in the floor to be used as a toilet.  Before being placed in the cell, the person is stripped and given only a paper gown to wear. No reading or writing material is provided, and human contact is limited to jail personnel bringing in food (with no utensils, for safety reasons) and some strips of toilet paper when requested.

From the perspective of jail personnel, they feel they have no other options. They don’t have the staff, training or budget to provide mental health treatment. Someone from the Community Services Board may be called in for an assessment, but actual counseling help is normally not available.

Understandably, the jail’s primary responsible is to ensure inmate safety and security. But a caring community as rich in resources as ours can do better than that, given the fact that, for an emotionally ill person, this kind of restraint and isolation can only serve to worsen their mental condition.

I have no easy solution to offer, but I am pleased to say that in a meeting I had yesterday with our new sheriff, Mr Hutcheson, he has agreed to be a part of a community forum at the Mssanutten Library Tuesday, March 6, from 12-1:30 to explore constructive options.

For starters, I suggest they might include the following:

1) Whenever possible, confine suicidal persons to regular segregation cells, with trained community volunteers (through our Community Services Board?) present for designated shifts around the clock to assure safety and provide for human interaction. These could include people like graduate level counselor interns and retired mental health professionals or clergy.

2) Provide appropriate reading and writing material.

3) Offer professional therapy on a regular basis through the CSB or with trained interns from JMU’s or EMU’s Masters in Counseling programs, always looking for practicum sites.

These are only some beginning suggestions, and any long term solutions must include having more bed space at institutions like Western State Hospital.

Meanwhile, if we work together, we can find humane solutions for mentally ill prisoners that will neither overburden the jail’s budget nor its personnel.
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