Mental Health: A challenge beyond our reach?

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Mental Illness in Jails: There’s a Lot We CAN Do

One of the sad realities of our time is the number of people in jail with some type of mental illness. Jails were not built, nor are they prepared, to address this challenge. Jail staff often do not have the training or background to accurately notice or appropriately deal with these individuals.

Jails were historically built to maintain order and security. Management of the facility was based on control and direction. To appropriately manage and treat individuals with mental health issues, a new approach is required.

Restrictive Housing has long been a way to control behavior that staff and/or administrators viewed as disruptive. That housing assignment was viewed as a means to protect staff, other inmates, and sometime even the inmate being placed in the housing, from harm. We now know, that some of those individuals likely had mental health issues they were dealing with that may have been interpreted as behavior issues.

Housing decisions matter. They can mean the difference between escalating problems for both the inmate and the jail, or de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation by ensuring the inmate’s ability to access necessary treatment.

Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and their national program, The Stepping Up Initiative, are working from the outside-in to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail in the first place, but once they’re here, it’s our turn to step up.

The more information that can be collected to make decisions regarding housing, programming, and treatment; the more informed staff can be when making decisions. The process begins during intake with comprehensive screenings and questionnaires. The inmate classification process then becomes an integral part of making sure that housing and programming are appropriate throughout the incarceration. Administrators must be asking the critical questions and tracking measures related to mental illness and the jail population to make sure the jail is addressing these issues appropriately.

Change will take time, and you aren’t in this alone. Whether you’re working with The Stepping Up Initiative, trying out other programs or approaches, or your jurisdiction is just starting out on your journey to get people with mental illnesses the help they need, we can help. We work with agencies and counties all over the country, and we’ve seen a lot of positive progress. Let’s work together.