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Number of mentally ill prisoners increase, jails lack funds to cope

Published January 13, 2003

DETROIT (AP) - The number of mentally ill people being locked up in Michigan jails and prisons is increasing, leading to a heightened risk of inmate suicide.

Frustrated administrators say they lack the money, personnel and expertise to evaluate or treat such inmates.

"We weren't designed to deal with mental health issues. We weren't intended to deal with the mentally ill," said Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association.

But treatment behind bars, not in clinical settings, is all that is available for many mentally ill lawbreakers.

Michigan has closed 10 state mental hospitals in the past decade. According to a Sunday report in The Detroit News, 23 percent - or 11,598 - of new state prison inmates in 2002 reported past mental health problems. That's an increase from 19 percent - or 6,169 - in 1990.

Nationally, the number of mentally ill persons behind bars is almost five times the number of patients in state mental hospitals, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

"We have a failing mental health system," said Elliot Luby, a clinical professor of psychiatry and law at Wayne State University. "The effects are felt at county jails. They don't have the funds, hospitals here have been closing and there are very few acute care facilities.

"So the hospital settings then become the prisons."

The influx of mentally ill inmates means jail administrators are facing problems similar to those of mental health professionals - including preventing suicides.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in prisons and the leading cause of death in jails nationwide, according to the Justice Department. Suicides are relatively uncommon, however, in Michigan's state prisons, which now house nearly 50,000 inmates. The Department of Corrections has recorded 45 suicides since 1995.

Similar figures for county jails are not available in a central database. In Wayne County, eight inmates killed themselves since 1999 and six Macomb County inmates took their lives between July 2000 and last April, The News said.

In November, Oakland County recorded its first jail suicide in more than a decade, that of a schizophrenic 19-year-old who hung himself with a sheet.

The Michigan Corrections Department has detailed policies for overseeing prisoners who may be suicidal and for administering prescriptions.

The department also inspects jails to make sure they have written policies covering inmate care, but its oversight powers are limited. Its inspection reports go to sheriffs and county commissioners, who must decide how to address any deficiencies - and how to pay for solutions.

The Michigan Sheriffs Association is working to help its members deal more effectively and safely with the mentally ill inmates in their jails.

Two training sessions will be held May 29-30, Executive Director Jungel said.

"We're looking for better ways of diverting the mentally ill from county jails to treatment programs," Jungel said. "One of the problems is that there is really limited availability of regional treatment programs. It's a community problem that needs to be dealt with on a community-wide basis."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm sympathizes with the sheriffs' plight, but the state's own budget woes would limit its ability to respond, spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said.

"The governor feels jails are not the place for us to keep the mentally ill," Dettloff said. "We've received a lot of information from mental health advocacy groups who want us to take a look at this."


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