Mentally ill and behind bars: Symptoms of a larger issue

Mentally ill and behind bars: Symptoms of a larger issue (Image 1)

Millions of dollars and still the problem is not solved. People suffering from mental illnesses behind bars because there is no where else for them to go.

The National Association of Sheriff’s says that there are more than 350,000 mentally ill patients behind bars. That’s 10 times more people than are in mental health facilities and right here in Eastern North Carolina, we’re seeing the problem first hand.

“Today’s detention facilities and jail facilities as well as prisons have become yesterdays mental health facilities,” says Major J. E. Phillips with the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office. 

Pitt County has closely monitored 25 severely mentally ill people who have been in and out of jail over the last 15 years. Phillips says the problem is that the mentally ill have no where to go.

“We have to be concerned with those or the population of those who are mentally ill in our community being brought to a facility that’s not necessarily adapted to the actual illness that they have,” Phillips says.

Those 25 inmates have cost $1.5 million of tax payer money and that number only includes the funds needed to house them.

“If we wind up receiving someone that is a mentally ill patient, it prolongs the criminal judicial process in completing and disposing of that case therefore money’s involved,” says Phillips.

Craven County District Attorney Scott Thomas says the problem was created when the government tried to save money.

“Several years ago, there was a move towards decentralization to push the services back out into the community,” says Thomas. “The problem with that was the funding never followed the decentralization.”

The cost saving attempt may have some serious consequences.

“What’s happening at this point is you have folks with various levels of mental health issues who are out on the streets every day,” says Thomas. “You’re walking past them on the side walk. You’re with them in the mall. You’re with them in the grocery store and you don’t even know it. But they could have an incident at any time. And it’s important that the public be aware of that. It’s an issue of public safety. It’s a matter of having the legislature provide adequate funding. So that we can get mental health services provided in these communities.”

Doctor Sy Saeed says moving forward a new approach should be considered.

“Clearly, there would be saving on many, many other dimensions from the social aspect of things but there is at least indications that if we do the right thing in the first place, we may end up saving money,” says Saeed. 

The right thing, he says, is to identify the problem and address its severity. 

“We need to think about and start with the patient and say, ‘this is a person. What’s the best we can do?’,” Saeed says. “If this person ends up in jail, or used to be in jail or a prison setting, then we need to make sure that good treatment is being provided to them just like we take care of any other medical illness.”

Pitt county Sheriff Neil Elks says the problem will likely get worse if nothing is done.

“This is the same problem we’ve been dealing with for weeks in and weeks out so we look at it as where do we go from here?,” says Elks.

This problem continues to back up the legal system and cost tax payers millions.

“It’s going to take the cities, the counties, the state level to recognize there needs to be a program for them.,” Elks says. “Combine all the players and persons of interest into that program and lets come up with a solution of what we can do.”

Every key player involved says this problem can no longer go ignored by the government or the community. The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has applied for a grant to help study the problem. They hope to hear if they will receive the funding by August.

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