July 18, 2013

Regarding the July 2 Metro article “After suicides, jail makes changes, will review policies”:

In the wake of two recent suicides at the D.C. jail, the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) must and will aggressively ensure that all available resources are devoted to preventing future occurrences. We are taking immediate steps to enhance suicide prevention protocols, including conducting a comprehensive review of all suicide prevention procedures and our mental health assessments; seeking assistance from the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections; creating a joint behavioral-health task force; and reviewing lines of communications with other D.C. and criminal justice agencies that may have contact with individuals prior to jail commitment. But the larger issue to address is the number of mentally ill people being housed in jails and prisons.

Across the country, corrections administrators struggle to deal with the needs of severely mentally ill offenders. Our jails and prisons — including here in the District — have started to become psychiatric hospitals, except with few mental health professionals. A 2008 Vera Institute study found that 33 percent of those arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department had a known mental health condition, such as having been previously diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Based upon D.C. DOC statistics, 40 percent of the inmate population had a current or prior history of psychiatric disorders.

In fact, the largest de facto psychiatric facility in the District is the D.C. jail. The three largest de facto psychiatric facilities in the United States are now the Los Angeles County jail, Rikers Island jail in New York and Cook County jail in Chicago.

Shifting the responsibility of caring for people in psychiatric crises to correction centers and jails rather than medical facilities poses a significant risk to both correctional officers and individuals, and a significant risk of liability to local government.

Untreated mental illnesses also impact correctional institutions in the area of suicides. The National Institute of Mental Health has indicated that more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Jails are not the place for people with severe mental disorders, and most local jails do not have the resources to provide adequate psychiatric services.

There is a critical need for alternatives. In the corrections profession, we must continue to address the realities of caring for the incarcerated mentally ill. At the same time, however, we need to develop a system to shift the responsibility of caring for the mentally ill back to trained professionals rather than waiting until corrections is tasked with doing so at the back end of the criminal justice system.

Thomas Faust, Washington

The writer is director of the D.C. Department of Corrections