People who suffer from a mental illness usually don’t receive “get well” cards and there’s a good chance they will end up in jail.
The ongoing practice of incarcerating mentally ill Americans by the tens of thousands is “a national disgrace,” according to reformer and advocate, Illinois Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, who spoke at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio state conference on Friday at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus.
Dart, a former prosecutor and Illinois state legislator, has drawn national attention for his efforts to change how mentally inmates are treated at the Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the country. On any given day, 2,500 to 3,000 people with serious mental illness are in Dart’s jail. He said most of them shouldn’t be there, and wouldn’t be there, if programs and treatment were available outside.
“The idea of locking up people because they’re ill is horrible,” he said . “If you said, ‘You have diabetes, we’re locking you up,’ people would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ But if we lock up people who have a mental illness, that’s OK.”
Advocates say that the mentally ill are “over-criminalized” in the justice system, often for nonviolent “crimes of survival,” as Dart describes them, such as minor theft and criminal trespass when they’re looking for a place to sleep.
NAMI Ohio President Len Dunham said mental illness and criminal justice system will be the organization’s focus for the coming year.
Gloria Walker, who has a family member said who struggles with mental health problems, said it can be a lonely illness. “Nobody sends you balloons, casseroles and get-well cards.”
Ohio prisons, as in most states, are the largest provider of mental health services. There are more than 10,500 inmates with diagnosed mental illness in Ohio prisons, 10 times as many as in state psychiatric hospitals.
Ohio prisons director Gary Mohr, recognizing the problem, is taking several steps, including adding prison treatment units and more psychiatric personnel, and focusing on providing released inmates with a transition plan for going home.
He’s also flatly refuses those urging him to build another prison to help accommodate the flow of mentally ill prisoners. “I believe in investing in people not bricks and mortar,” Mohr said in a video shown at the conference.
Dart said he has tried several things in the Cook County Jail, including giving corrections officers advanced training in dealing with mentally ill inmates, diverting them through a pre-trial initiative, setting up a toll-free hotline for inmate family members, and creating a separate mental health transition center for inmates about to be released from jail.
The sheriff said the reform programs haven’t cost additional money.
“These things can be done,” he said. “If anybody tells you they’re too hard, they’re lying to you or they’re a coward.”
Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill who attended the conference, said she thinks Ohio judges are making inroads in the criminalization issue by creating separate mental health courts.
Stratton said she wishes her fellow Republicans in the General Assembly would realize treating mental illness outside prison is far less costly than treating it inside. “If they are for smaller government and greater efficiency, they will see incarcerating the mentally ill is one of the biggest expenses.”