The pros and cons of increasing the number of mental health beds in prison
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03-03-16 Category: Addiction Treatment

mental health beds in prison

On February 23, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to double the number of beds for mentally ill inmates in the new jail facility. “This proposal is great in terms of mental health services,” notes Supervisor Ken Yeager, “but it’s still the most expensive way to provide those services as opposed to having folks diverted to some other facility or treatment area rather than jails.” But according to one critic, jail is jail, and jail with its rules is no place for someone who is mentally ill. Adding more beds and services will not remedy the situation.

Pros: jails and prisons are evolving to deal with the influx of mentally ill inmates

The existing Santa Clara County jail is a crumbling relic of the 1950s. Before the vote to construct a new mail jail, city officials batted back and forth the idea of refurbishing the old jail. This tennis match lasted for 30 years.

It is not a stretch to use the old and new as metaphors for how the jail and prison system deals with mentally ill inmates. Unit 8A of the existing jail is designated for the 139 prisoners (maximum occupancy) who are at risk to harm themselves or others or who are mentally ill. The San Jose Mercury News notes over half of the 3,600 inmates in the main and outlying jails are mentally ill and on any given day, over 600 receive psychotropic drugs.

And then there was the death of Michael Tyree two years ago. Tyree, who was mentally ill and not even supposed to be locked up, was beaten to death by three prison guards in the main jail. The three guards were arrested and charged with murder. Obviously, a new facility will not change how individuals behave, but according to the Santa Clara County Board, the hope for better treatment lies not in the number of beds but in the expanded scope of service available to the prisoners. Unlike in the old facility, where prisoners were routinely provided with nothing but medication, the new facility boasts of greater access to treatment. Prisoners will be able to communicate directly (i.e., hug) with family members – currently, prisoners must use videoconferencing to chat.

But before we announce the arrival of prison reform in our times, Jamie Fellner advises us to take pause.

Cons: mental illness and prison rules

Fellner, a senior advisor to the U.S. branch of Human Rights Watch (HRW), explains the quandary succinctly: “Coordinating the needs of the mentally ill with those [prison] rules and goals is nearly impossible.

In an article for HRW, Fellner argues against incarcerating mentally ill individuals. She notes that as many as 300,000 men and women in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from mental disorders. The point, says Fellner, is mentally ill inmates lack the mental wherewithal to abide by the myriad rules that define a prisoner’s existence.

She cites numerous examples of mentally ill prisoners who incur prison disciplinary action because they act out. These behaviors, including self-mutilation, damaging their cells, even smearing themselves with feces, demonstrate the need for psychiatric intervention. What these prisoners receive instead, notes Fellner, is time in solitary confinement for destroying prison property or creating a disturbance.

Sovereign’s Court Services division works with the courts to secure treatment, not incarceration. We go with patients to court, not as lawyers but as legal advocates. We believe mental illness and substance abuse require treatment, not jail. Contact our 24/7 helpline to learn more about our services.

About the author

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author

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