Monday, July 21, 2008

Finding Escape Behind Bars

Consider this recent headline and story from the Houston Chronicle. “Finding escape behind bars,” reads the banner. “When jail is the only place mentally ill inmates get treatment, they come back, and it costs. $87 million."

If someone is surprised that our prisons have become de facto mental hospitals, you shouldn’t.

When a person with a mental illness leaves jail, treatment is often unavailable. Most aren’t receiving medication. They get sick again and that often leads to another crime. People who commit crimes usually get caught. They end up back in jail.

The result is that police officers and prison officials have become front line mental health workers. It jeopardizes their safety and provides less than adequate care for those in need.

On just one day in June, the Harris County prison population of homeless people with a mental illness included:

  • A 39-year-old woman booked 45 times since 2001.
  • A man, 26, booked 30 times since 1999.
  • A man, 52, booked 33 times since 1992.
  • A man, 25, booked 20 times since 2001.

The cycle needs to be broken. It’s not helping people who need help and taxpayers are paying too large a price for an inevitably bad outcome.