Catoosa, Walker sheriff

Catoosa County sheriff Gary Sisk (left) and Walker County sheriff Steve Wilson

All across America, similar numbers are repeated again and again.

Officials at Chicago’s Cook County Jail estimate at least 30 percent — and often more than 50 percent — of the jail’s daily inmate population of more than 10,000 suffer from mental illness.

Except for geography and size, the same is true in northwest Georgia, according to local law enforcement officials.

“I don’t have specific figures but it is common knowledge that a large majority of those incarcerated in our jails have mental problems,” Catoosa County sheriff Gary Sisk said. “They may or may not be on psychotropic drugs and our medical staff and counselors spend a lot of time dealing with those inmates.”

Walker County sheriff Steve Wilson, who is a member of the state mental health board, says the numbers are high, the cost is great and the jails have assumed an ever changing role.

“Jails across America are being filled with the mentally ill,” he said. “Closing a mental hospital often shifts patients into inmates and it is an ongoing crisis.”

Today’s crisis has been building for nearly four decades, from the time when shuttering hospitals and clinics was promoted as being better for the patients — and for county, state and federal budgets

But what began as “deinstitutionalization” in the 1970s — closing mental health facilities and turning patients out into the general society — has had repercussions that affect not only those needing treatment but the public at large.

More than 80 percent of the mentally ill are unemployed or considered unemployable, according to a recent report from the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Those without jobs or who rely on Social Security payments are often homeless.

And for some, life on the street without benefit of support or treatment results in changing their status from homeless to inmate.

In the six years period from 2000-06, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, showed a four-fold increase in the number of mentally ill inmates. More than half of those inmates exhibited symptoms of major depressions, mania, bipolar and other psychotic disorders.

When that 2006 report was released, Human Rights Watch found deficient mental health services in prisons and jails left prisoners under-treated or not treated at all.

Not only are the untreated prisoners at risk from their illness, that are at risk for disciplinary actions while incarcerated and are more likely to either violate conditions of their release or commit new crimes that land them back behind bars.

Plus, corrections, court and law enforcement officers are at risk of becoming victims of physical or verbal assault by a mentally ill inmate or defendant awaiting trial.

“It is really stretching the limits of what we can do,” Wilson said. “We are law enforcement not mental health, trained.”

Where the mentally ill were once confined to asylums or hospitals’ psychiatric wards, today they are more put into the back of a patrol car either for they way they act or for an act they have committed.

“People are put in jail for a mental health issue, or for having committed a crime due to a mental health issue,” the Walker County sheriff said. “We probably have at least 30 percent of our prisoners on mental health medications.

“And it seems like during the last 12 months we’ve been inundated with extremely mentally ill inmates. Some are mentally ill and some have developmental disabilities. But we get into that bubble where we cannot get them the help they need.”

And for many, some say the majority, their mental condition state will lead to their being locked behind bars not just once, but again and again and again.

From Florida to Maine, from California to Washington and all states in between the story is the same: jails are becoming counties’ largest — and only — mental health facility.

And costs far exceed the daily cost of about $44 to house a prisoner in the Walker or Catoosa county jails.

Inmates do not pay taxes, their families are often forced to rely on government safety net programs; they increase the work load for court, parole, probation and law enforcement personnel and the cost of providing medications for inmates.

“Over 50 percent of my population are jailed because of violations of probation,” Sisk said of the inmates in the jail located on U.S. Highway 41 just north of Ringgold. “We are going to have to spend the time and make an investment in people — provide them with the tools to get them on their feet.

“I’m fine with punishment for crime, but we need to try to help them become a better person when they leave here. We need to better the situation for those willing to work to-ward bettering themselves.”

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