US Jails Struggle With Role as Makeshift Asylums

—In Pensacola, Florida, Justice officials last year issued a scathing report about conditions at the Escambia County Jail. Records showed many inmates who requested care were never seen by a mental health professional. When inmates refused to take medications, the jail merely removed them from its list of those with a mental illness.

—In Columbus, Nebraska — seat of a county of 33,000 — six Platte County Detention Center inmates attempted suicide early this year, as many as in the previous 10 years combined. Jon Zavadil, the recently retired sheriff, says about 80 percent of all inmates medicated for some type of mental illness.

"Every county jail in the state has the same problem," says Zavadil, who blames Nebraska lawmakers for voting to close two of the state's three public psychiatric hospitals over the past decade.

Researchers long warned mental illness was being "criminalized," as police arrested more people for low-level offenses.

In the 1980s, researchers found about 6 percent of inmates showed signs of serious mental illness. A survey published in 2009 found 17 percent of jail inmates with serious mental illnesses. Individual jails report far greater numbers.

Today, many of those jailed with mental illnesses have grown up in a system full of holes.

"Even what we had when I started doing this work in 1988 was better than what we have now," says Nancy Koenigsberg, legal director for Disability Rights New Mexico, which helped bring suit against her state's Dona Ana County Detention Center in 2010 for mistreating mentally ill inmates.

But while the jail has since increased its mental health staff, New Mexico cities and counties have continued closing drop-in centers and other programs to that help maintain treatment. Many people wind up repeatedly picked up for relatively minor crimes.

At the Volusia County Detention Center in Daytona Beach, Florida, administrators compiled a list of such "frequent flyers." The 19 worst had been collectively jailed 894 times, mostly for minor offenses. Nearly half had a history of mental illness.

"A lot of their behavior was low level," says Marilyn Ford, the county's corrections director. "So they cycle through in a fairly short period of time and they never make it to prison."

Chicago's jail can offer an island of stability for inmates with mental illnesses, Dart says. In coming months, Dart plans to convert a former boot camp into a transition center to help those with mental illnesses after release.

But William, a 62-year-old inmate who says he's been jailed nine or 10 times for theft to support a drug habit, is doubtful. Many judges dismiss mental illness as a factor in crimes, says the inmate, diagnosed with depression, anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder. Outside jail, treatment is hard to get.

"Once we leave here," he says, "we're back on doom street."

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Adam Geller can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adgeller .

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