July 21, 2008
The jails and the mentally ill

Tough story to read in the Chron today about mentally ill folks and the role the county jails have played as de facto health care provider for them.

At the Harris County Jail, deputies and health care workers have a name for them -- frequent fliers.

They are mentally ill homeless people who return to jail so often, sometimes on minor charges, that they become familiar to the psychiatric staff.

During a recent survey, county officials found that more than 400 of the jail's 11,000 inmates were homeless and suffered from a major mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or a chronic depressive-psychotic disorder. They were among 1,900 inmates on psychotropic medications.

When the mentally ill homeless leave jail -- and leave behind its mental health care staff -- many stop taking medication and end up on the street again. Treatment resumes only when they commit a crime and return to jail or their dementia overwhelms them and they are brought to an emergency psychiatric center.

Treating the mentally ill as they cycle through jail and emergency psychiatric wards is expensive. A county budget analyst estimates that it costs $80,000 a year, per person.

At the jail, spending on mental health care has risen to $24 million annually, and the combined cost of incarcerating and treating the mentally ill is $87 million annually.

"The jails have become the psychiatric hospitals of the United States," said Clarissa Stephens, an assistant director of the county's budget and management services office who has been studying the jail's mental health costs.

The Commissioners Court is so concerned about the rising costs that it has retained a consultant -- psychiatrist Avrim Fishkind -- to study whether providing outpatient services and supervised housing would reduce the numbers of mentally ill revolving through the jail.

"The costs of reincarcerating and court costs far outweigh what the costs would be if you housed, clothed and supervised the mentally ill," Fishkind said.


Some of the mentally ill -- many of whom also are substance abusers -- keep committing crimes and getting rearrested, in part, because few are properly supervised when they are released, said David Buck, a Baylor College of Medicine associate professor and president of Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston.

Houston isn't alone in facing this issue. After many mental hospitals were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, countless patients were released in cities that were ill-equipped to house those who needed such care.

"What happens here happens in many communities. We are criminalizing mental illness," said Betsy Schwartz, president of Mental Health of America of Greater Houston, a nonprofit that promotes effective treatment for the mentally ill.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I'm going to do it anyway. We spend all this money to lock people up, when it would be more humane, more cost-effective, and more in keeping with the principles of justice if we'd look for alternatives for many of them. I have some questions about how outpatient sevices and supervised housing would work, and how successful the county would be at overcoming the inevitable (and, let's face it, understandable) NIMBYism that would be the response to them, but the idea is solid.

Chief Deputy Mike Smith of the Sheriff's Office said the jail's mental health operation is comparable to the biggest non-jail mental health hospitals in the state.

Smith, as head of the jail, is among those credited with upgrading its mental health services.

"I've had people say I better watch what I say or I'll come across as a liberal," he said. "We shouldn't be treating our mentally ill in the jails. We should be treating them in the free world."

See, this is the sort of thing that shouldn't be a "liberal" idea or a "conservative" idea but simply a sensible and humane idea. What we're doing right now doesn't work on many levels. There's no compelling reason not to try something else. Let's make it happen.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 21, 2008 to Crime and Punishment

Harris County gives them specific instructions on how to keep up with their drug plan and where to go to get FREE drugs when they're out of prison. But they choose not to get it.

Posted by: anonymous on July 21, 2008 11:11 PM

Did you miss the part where it saud they were mentally ill? These folks aren't capable of caring for themselves like that. Which is why they keep winding up in jail, where it costs us a lot of money to take care of them. An alterative where they were provided with shelter and supervision to ensure they took their meds would be cheaper. That's the point.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 22, 2008 8:36 AM

The first comment is typical of folks who may not have any personal experience with the mentally ill. Much of the time they have put their friends and family through so much that they are left with no one to help them navigate the system, provide help with living arrangements, or even provide transportation to doctor appointments or drug stores. They are alone in this world...sick and confused. They are truely among the neediest of our citizens and most deserving of our govenment's help. It is unfortunate that so many people have to have had personal contact (family) to have empathy for the needs of others.

Posted by: Deborah on July 24, 2008 10:22 PM
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