Too often, it seems, when people with mental illness have nowhere else to go, they end up in jail.
The state has closed some mental health facilities, and the ones that are left have waiting lists to get in. Local law enforcement and mental health agencies do what they can to help prisoners and get them back on track, but it’s a tough job.
According to Wichita news reports, Sedgwick County officials are considering the addition of a mental health pod at their county jail. The jails in Shawnee and Johnson counties already have such facilities. Sedgwick County officials say about 19 percent of their jail inmates are on medication to treat a mental illness. Jail officials in Johnson County estimate about 17 percent of their inmate population are considered mentally ill; in Shawnee County, about 20 percent have serious mental illness.
In general, mentally ill inmates are in jail longer and are more likely to be arrested again, the officials say, often for minor offenses.
Douglas County is not immune to this problem. Jail officials here report that about 12 percent of the people booked into the Douglas County Jail report having mental health problems; about 2 percent have severe and persistent mental illness. Of the 140 inmates that were in the county jail late last week, 29 percent were on some kind of psychotropic medication.
Local officials have done an admirable job of trying to deal with mentally ill inmates. The county contracts with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to evaluate inmates with mental illness during their incarceration and try to help them stay out of jail once they get out. Grant funding now is supporting a program called AIMS, which stands for Assess, Intervene, Mobilize, Succeed. The goal of the program is to try to help mentally ill prisoners connect with services that can ease their transition when they leave jail.
A mental health pod hasn’t been suggested for the Douglas County Jail, but the experience of larger counties raises real questions about the services that are available to Kansans with mental illness. Closing state hospitals may save the state money, but shifting the responsibility for a significant number of the mentally ill to county jails is both expensive for local governments and a disservice to individual inmates who might be more successfully treated in a hospital setting.
Transitioning more clients to community mental health services is a good goal, but when so many mentally ill people end up in jail, the system isn’t working as it should.