Mental health crisis most visible in prisons

South Bend Tribune

The statistics are stunning.

Right now in Indiana, the Department of Correction estimates that 17 percent of state prisoners have been diagnosed with some degree of mental illness. Nationwide, studies suggest almost half of all prisoners in federal, state and county prisons and jails suffer from some type of mental illness.

Martin Horn, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that in 2014 the leading providers of acute mental health care in this country are the jails in New York City, Los Angeles — even Indianapolis. Jails have become the primary mental health centers in the United States, and it’s a system that isn’t working.

Sheriffs Kenneth Murphy, of Franklin County, and Steve Rogers, of Howard County, told a legislative study committee recently that jails are struggling to cope with mentally ill inmates who don’t belong behind bars. These are inmates who need hospital treatment but can’t afford to pay for private care or who can’t, or won’t, take the medications that help them cope with daily life.

Murphy put the problem in the starkest of terms: “Quite frankly, we have become the insane asylum for the United States, not just the state of Indiana.”

The South Bend Tribune highlighted the problem of mental illness in Indiana prisons in the case of Patrick Whetstone. Whetstone was a 25-year-old who suffered from bipolar disorder and stayed for a time in a special needs unit in Wabash Valley Correctional Center. In the end, another mentally ill inmate, Luis Silveria, tortured and killed him.

Many experts say the problems began in the 1980s — or even earlier with the passage of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 — when state mental hospitals were closed or downsized as part of a shift toward community-based care. The model didn’t work and many of the mentally ill wound up on the streets or in jail.

There is a role jails can play in helping the mentally ill. Some experts have suggested training jail staff and even patrol officers to help determine where a mentally ill person could be placed — instead of jail — keeping in mind the individual’s needs.

There are serious questions for the Indiana General Assembly, and all state officials, to take up. And not just in Indiana. Should states have pulled out of the mental health treatment business as dramatically as they have? Is community-based care really a better solution? Do prisons have the right staff and training to handle the mentally ill? Should state resources be directed in different ways?

Until these questions are answered, or at least until a meaningful debate is started, we fear there will only be more cases like that of Patrick Whetstone. His mother has tried to draw attention to the issue. We join her in attempting to shine a bright spotlight.

Because it’s already clear simply warehousing the mentally ill as a way of keeping them off the streets isn’t solving the problem.