Are jails the new mental hospitals?

Are jails the new mental hospitals? »Play Video
Jails like the one in Benton County regularly deal with inmates suffering from mental illness. "Almost every day of the month we'll have at least one inmate if not more in here that is suffering from mental illness," said Diana Rabago with Benton County Sheriff's Office.

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. - One in three prison inmates has some kind of mental health issue, according to a report from the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Are correctional facilities the new psyciatric hospitals?

And if so, should they be?

"By default, they have become, yes, inpatient psyciatric facilities," said Katharine Schneider, manager of Lane County Behavioral Health Division.

"Almost every day of the month we'll have at least one inmate if not more in here that is suffering from mental illness," said Diana Rabago with Benton County Sheriff's Office.

Mentally ill individuals cause a problem in the community.

So officers take them in, where they sit and wait for a mental health evaluation.

If the doctor decides the offender cannot understand the charges against them, the inmates become patients and get sent to the state hospital.

Rabago said the whole process can take between 6 to 8 weeks or longer.

"We've had an individual sit here for four months on a disorderly conduct charge waiting to go through this process," Rabago said, "and then find out at the end of the four months - yep, they need to go to the state hospital. So they go back up there. They're up there for four weeks. State hospital says OK, they're a little better now, send them back here. Charge gets dismissed and they're out."

Back out in the community, likely without any further mental health treatment.

So chances are, they'll end up back in handcuffs all over again.

Rabago said it's a never-ending cycle. For example, a 26-year-old man was arrested over 10 times last year. He spent almost 300 days in jail. Today, he's still not getting the treatment he needs.

While the inmate sits behind bars, Rabago said they're locked into a system where they get very little treatment.

"Generally not any continuity of medications because they come in off the streets or they're plucked from their homes," Schneider with Lane Coutny said. "They're incapable of stating what meds they're on and what their behavior needs are."

And that's assuming the person is aware of their mental ilness.

Niki Kelley, the corrections nurse at the Benton County Jail, said even if the inmate knows what medication they take - and the jail has the medicine - the subject can and usually does refuse to take it, leaving themselves and law enforcement at risk.

"They're hallucinating, they're hearing things, they're seeing things, voices telling them to do things, voices telling them to harm themselves to harm others," Kelley said. "They'll play with the food. They'll play with others things, such as their own feces. They'll paint, they'll draw - in extreme situation, they'll even eat it."

Both Lane County Behavioral Health and Benton County Sheriff's Office said the root of the problem is a lack of resources; a lack of funding; and a lack of collaboration.

Schneider said she hopes that will change. She said that, in the past, mental health officials have not worked hand in hand with law enforcement.

But they're putting that practice in the slammer.

"It's our goal to divert people from jail when we believe that their symptoms of their mental illness were the driver of commiting a crime," she said.

That could help the mentally ill unlock a brighter future, setting themselves free from the prison of mental instability.

Lane Couny is implementing a jail diversion program in cooperation with many social se]rvice organizations. The goal is to improve care be better utilizing resources and prevent overlaps.

Schneider says they're implemnting a "jail diversion team" where everyone from law enforcement to behavioral health and everyone in between is on the same page will be extremely beneficial.

They hope to have this program up and running sometime in the next few months.