SID SALTER: Jailing the mentally ill shows just how low we go

By Sid Salter

One would think that the same logic that would make it seem like a good idea to lock a mentally ill person in a county jail cell would lead that same person to conclude that it’s also smart to lock a skin cancer victim inside a tanning bed.
The increased damage would likely be about the same – to take a tragic, dangerous situation and do something incongruent to make it worse. Jailing the mentally ill for whatever reasons – no room in state treatment beds, budget constraints, transitioning from custodial care to community-based care – is still jailing the mentally ill.
Over the years, I’ve seen and talked to mental patients who’ve been parked in county jail cells. I’ve seen the look of fear and abandonment in their eyes.
I’ve heard them ask: “Why is this happening to me?” And, unfortunately in a few instances, I’ve heard them scream, cry and beg for relief that county jail personnel aren’t qualified to deliver on a good day and don’t really care about delivering on a bad day.
That’s not an indictment of jail personnel, either. It’s just the hard fact of underpaid, understaffed correctional officers trying to manage a bunch of real criminals while warehousing a mental patient who shouldn’t be in a jail cell in the first place.
I’ve seen hardened county sheriffs driven to the brink of tears over being put in the position of incarcerating the mentally ill – and the families of those patients pushed past that brink into utter despair.
Why are the mentally ill being jailed in the first place? The reasons as familiar as they were when I first heard them 25 years ago – the patients got off their meds, the patients’ families can’t control them at home, there are no beds available in custodial care, or there’s a delay in the legal commitment process.
Bottom line, either the patient or the system – or both – breaks down.
All those excuses for jailing mental patients in Mississippi are as moldy as two-week-old bread. And those excuses were floating around before the current recession and state/county revenue shortfalls became part of the equation.
Clearly, the state Department of Mental Health has over the years become a behemoth of a state agency – an agency that has grown at times because of the largess of state legislators who had friends and relatives on the agency’s payroll. One of the largest state agencies, the Department of Mental Health employs about 8,500 people with a budget of more than $636.8 million. That budget has grown more than 60 percent in the last decade.
The crisis mental health centers that previous DMH leaders promised would provide a safety net to keep mental patients out of jail cells are now in the process of being “transitioned” to local non-profit mental health agencies.
While there is some clinical evidence that community-based mental health services are preferable and more effective than custodial care in large state facilities, that’s only true when the community-based mental health providers have sufficient funding from local governments to actually provide that care.
They don’t. Ask them.
But what this community-based mental health care concept does have is the ability to give state officials political cover to shove the costs of providing mental health care from state government down to local governments. As county officials prepare to face the same voters that state officials will face in 2011 – with the same trepidation about any tax hikes – the prospects of new funds for community-based mental health treatment facilities are slim to none.
Mental patients in county jails? Get used to it. Jailing mental patients shows just how low we can all go.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.