Jailers didn’t suspect anything unusual when they placed an inmate in his cell. He didn’t create a disturbance so his problem went unnoticed for three days. Then, a jailer realized something was wrong. The inmate was standing in the same position, staring at the wall, as he had been on the first and second days. He was catatonic. At the hospital, medical personnel determined the man had sustained serious injuries to his feet because he had been standing too long. District Court Judge Mark Smith of the Seventh Judicial District doesn’t blame the jailers. He blames the system because it is not equipped to handle the issues of individuals with mental illness. What he didn’t say, needs to be stated: we, as taxpayers, citizens and children of the same God, are part of that system. We need to change it.
The issue of imprisoning people with mental illness — who would be better served by intensive treatment rather than incarceration — has the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s attention. In a hearing last month W. David Guice, North Carolina’s commissioner of adult corrections and juvenile justice testified that: “Our prisons and jails are becoming de facto mental health hospitals, and are straining to accommodate these recent demands.” North Carolina has established a new treatment program for inmates with mental illness, according to the Council of State Governments (2-12-2016). It is one of more than 300 nationwide. Iowa would be wise to examine these models for creation of its own mental health court system.
Judge Smith and others seek to jump-start the effort with creation of a Scott County Mental Health Court. That was the point of his testimony during the Scott County Mental Health Court Advocacy and Action Event on Feb. 25 in Davenport — to illustrate the need for one. He and other speakers said mental health court is essential to human justice and dignity and, in the long run, will save money. “Mental illness is not illegal. Mental illness is not a crime,” said the judge, who expressed frustration that at the present time he has no other option but jail or prison for individuals with mental illness who appear before him in court. Many of them commit relatively minor crimes and are not a threat to society.
There’s no question that dangerous criminals, with or without mental illness, should be locked up. Even so, the response to an individual in the midst of a psychotic episode requires the help of trained mental health care professionals. Dr. Paul Elias, a psychologist and program coordinator for the Scott County Jail, said about 17 percent of that jail’s inmates have chronic, persistent, severe mental illness. They are housed in a special management area in the jail’s lower level. Iowa has a shortage of mental health care professionals, a corollary issue for the state to confront. All of us must do a better job of encouraging careers in mental health care.
Meanwhile, inmates with mental illness languish in our jails and prisons longer than typical inmates. Their behavior causes stress for everyone in the correction facility. They aren’t receiving the rehabilitation and reintegration services critical to their reentry into society. They have an increased risk of suicide and every psychotic episode moves them further away from their wellness baseline. Their rate of recidivism is also higher than the typical inmate, says Chris McCormick-Pries, clinical director of Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport.
Mental Health Court would provide the continuum of care that individuals with mental illness so desperately need, she and other panelists said. They point to the success of a mental health court just across the Mississippi River. Courtney Stenzel, a member of Rock Island County (Ill.) Mental Health Court Team, explained how the program works and marveled at the successes she’s witnessed. One program graduate, Owen, appeared at the Scott County event to share his story.
A plan for a mental health court in Scott County is ready to go, but it requires funding. It’s a collaborative effort of a variety of entities, spearheaded by Quad Cities Interfaith. The program’s goal is to provide structure and support for people with untreated mental illness. On the enforcement side, the program is expected to lower recidivism and cut jail costs.
They’re depending on all of us to contact our U.S. senators and representatives to champion bipartisan mental health reform through House of Representatives Bill HR 3722/Senate Bill S 2002; House of Representatives Bill HR 1854/ Senate Bill S 993; and House of Representatives Bill HR 2646. Contact your state legislators as well, encouraging them to address this issue as part of mental health parity and the redesign of the state’s mental health care system.
Catholic social teaching states that “every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency.” We are responsible to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. Our response shouldn’t be catatonic.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor