Jails As Mental Health Centers

Cost can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.

The cost of mental health cuts on a personal level to those in need of treatment, criminal justice professionals and the community as a whole doesn’t lend itself to easy quantification.

It’s a fact those who deal first-hand with the effects of cuts see every day.

“They now have prisons that do nothing but mental health,” Forest-Warren Human Services Director Mary Kushner pointed out. “They’re calling the prisons the new asylums. When you track the closing of state hospitals, what happens to those people? You close a state hospital, there’s an increase in crime. There’s an increase in homelessness.”

This is apparent to those tasked with handling individuals with mental health problems when they run afoul of the law.

“The physical plant itself is not conducive to a mental health environment,” Warren County Jail Warden Jerry Britton said. “Their (inmates’) behavior can be explosive. Trying to rationalize with them is difficult. We’re not allowed to have certain medications… so they may not get the same thing here that has helped them. The more of these people we get, the more burden on the staff and the more likely we are to miss something.

“The staff, we’re not mental health professionals. We’re not equipped to handle mental health problems. They can’t get the help they need here. You feel bad for these people, but we can’t reach out like a minister. We have to keep our distance. The best we can do is contact someone who can.”

“We try to divert these cases,” Warren county District Attorney Ross McKeirnan said. “I try to spot those and get them out of there.

“For any criminal defendant that comes through, the level of their competency, whether or not they can stand trial on their charges, is a very low threshold. They might be very mentally ill but still competent to face charges. You very rarely get someone who is deemed incompetent or can raise a true mental health defense.”

“When you look at our local jail, they didn’t expect to deal with the mental health folks there,” Kushner said. “Now we do some community psychiatry there, they get medical attention there, they also have drug and alcohol treatment there. So they’re getting that treatment, but they’re not specialized.

“Then, if their medicines aren’t adjusted, or they refuse to take medication, then that increases the risk to other inmates and to the guards.”

“Coming here, depending on what they’re diagnosed with, just exacerbates their issues,” Deputy Warden Steve Smith added. “It all compounds.

“We have the problem across the state, but if they put them into a state facility all of the taxpayers chip in for it,” he added. “If they’re placed here, the burden is on the taxpayers of Warren County. If they’ve been through the state hospital, they’re not necessarily from Warren County.”

Once someone with mental health issues leaves jail, responsibility often falls to county probation and parole.

“We have had good success with them when we can get them on their meds and get them into a mental health program,” McKee said. “We can’t really do anything as far as their mental health condition. That really has to be done by the mental health folks. We can only try to get them there.

“Unfortunately, the ones ending up in the system are the ones who can’t make it on their own outside. In a lot of cases, they can’t handle adult responsibilities. Because they don’t cooperate, they don’t show up in court. They come in on bench warrants. So a lot of them end up being held,” he added. “The guards at the jail say, ‘He doesn’t belong here. Why do you keep sending him?’ We can’t let him back out to keep doing it.”

Once outside, the impact is felt in the community as well.

“When you look at the past ten years, funding’s been cut,” Kushner said. “Then you have shootings and it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s put more money into the system.’ and that dries up, too. As we see more cuts on the public side, there’s more work for law enforcement. I think that now you’re seeing where the mental health issues are becoming public safety issues.”

“It’s a safety issue,” McKeirnan agreed. “I can’t just let them back out on the street.”

“There’s nowhere for these people to go,” said Conewango Township Police Chief Jason Peters. “They’re back out in the general population and these folks, you can’t rehabilitate them. Once they get out, they still are what they are.”

“I think the general population doesn’t have enough concern over mental health issues,” Britton said. “They don’t know how to deal with it or have the education on it. We’re stuck with a situation that nobody wants to deal with.”

“You drop the pebble and you see the ripples,” Kushner said, citing a phrase she attributed to McKeirnan. “It affects everyone.”