Man sitting with head down in jail

Mental Illness Increasing in Jails

The growing number of inmates suffering from some level of mental illness within the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center in Murfreesboro is estimated to be between 20 and 40 percent of the jail’s population.

Due to overcrowding, the total number of inmates currently hovers around 1,000, meaning between 200 and 400 incarcerated women and men are suffering with mental illness inside crowded cells.

Types of Mental Illness

Everything from depression to aggressive forms of mental illness can frequently be found within the jail population. When left untreated, the illness can stir up fist fights or even cause a devastating suicide. Many people who would have been cared for in a mental health institution before the wide sweeping changes of the 80s, now find themselves institutionalized in a penal facility, instead, for violating some law. Perhaps they didn’t stay on medication that helps control certain behavioral tendencies and then found themselves arrested and needing assistance from a bail bond company.

Mental Health Evaluations

Mental evaluations are provided on-site at the jail by Volunteer Behavioral Health of Middle Tennessee for individuals who have severe mental illness. After evaluation, inmates meeting certain criteria are then referred to Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute and hospitalized. Removing such serious cases from the general jail population may relieve a bit of stress overall, but only a small percentage of inmates fall into the number who are hospitalized for treatment, so the effect is not widely felt.

Costs of Treatment

The cost of treating inmates for physical as well as mental illness is astronomical, not just in money but also in the amount of labor required. The hours spent distributing medication and the hours required to transport inmates to doctor appointments and hospitals add up quickly. Medical services at the jail in Rutherford County cost $4.13 million for one year alone. Included in this figure are dental care, medication, hospitalizations, and the services of a full-time nursing staff which is available 24 hours a day.

Somewhat lacking from the jail’s provisions, though, are on-site counseling services. There are, however, programs such as AA and chapel services provided by volunteers to help inmates deal with the condition of their lives in the present situation.

It has been suggested that one remedy to help reduce jail overcrowding would be to implement a mental health court. Low-risk offenders could be placed in a program that would provide counseling and potentially reduce the chance that they will commit a future offense.

Statistics on the Davidson County Mental Health Court website indicate that individuals with mental illness are not able to successfully adapt to the traditional sanctions in a county jail. For this reason, such individuals typically end up serving longer stints of incarceration and have higher recidivism rates than the general population. With a mental health court in place, these individuals would be assessed and a treatment program devised to include housing, counseling, vocational rehabilitation and access to mental health care.

The burden of care for mentally ill inmates extends beyond local law enforcement. Society and the courts may want to revisit the issue.

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