Jails, prisons increasingly taking care of mentally ill

By Merrill Balassone
Sunday, January 23, 2011

MODESTO, CALIF. - An 18-year-old schizophrenic pounds on the thick security glass of his single-man cell.

A woman lets out a long guttural scream to nobody in particular to turn off the lights.

A 24-year-old man drags his mattress under his bunk, fearful of the voices telling him to hurt himself.

This is not the inside of a psychiatric hospital. It's the B-Mental Health Unit, one of two wings reserved for mentally ill inmates at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center in Modesto.

Sheriff's deputy David Frost, who oversees the unit, says most of the inmates aren't difficult, just needy.

"They do want help," Frost said.

Stanislaus County is not unique. Experts say U.S. prisons and jails have become the country's largest mental health institutions, its new asylums.

Nearly four times more Californians with serious mental illnesses are housed in jails and prisons than in hospitals, according to a study released last year by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association.

Nationally, 16 to 20 percent of prisoners are mentally ill, said Harry K. Wexler, a psychologist specializing in crime and substance abuse.

"I think it's a national tragedy," Wexler said. "Prisons are the institutions of last resort. The mentally ill are generally socially undesirable, less employable, more likely to be homeless and get on that slippery slope of repeated involvement in the criminal justice system."

Those who staff prisons and jails are understandably ill-equipped to be psychiatric caretakers, and there are consequences, researchers say.

Frost agrees his role is an unexpected one: "I'm not a mental health technician," he says, although he does hold a psychology degree. "I'm a sworn law enforcement officer."

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