Jails are a costly psychiatric solution

How much does it cost American taxpayers to house people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons across the country?

Is the answer $50 million, $500 million, $1 billion, $10 billion? How about $15 billion or more a year?

That question was posed to me and a group of 19 other journalists at a recent National Press Foundation fellowship program titled “Training Journalists on the Complexities of Mental Health,” underwritten by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies.

We spent 3 1/2 days in Washington, attending workshops presented by the nation’s top mental health experts. Speakers included Kana Enomoto, acting administrator for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Dr. Harold Kudler, chief consultant for the Office of Mental Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs; Linda Rosenberg, president of the National Council for Behavioral Health; and Dr. Fred Osher, director of health systems and services policy for the Council of State Governments.

We even toured Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a public psychiatric hospital, where John Hinckley Jr. was released last week. Hinckley, as I’m sure many of you know, is the guy who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981. We missed his release from the hospital by 10 days.

During the training, I was particularly interested in the impact mental illness has had on our criminal justice system, considering some of the problems we face in Columbus with overcrowding at the Muscogee County Jail. Last year, I wrote a column about concerns raised by Paul Morris, the jail’s health services administrator. He said 850 out of the 1150 inmates at the jail were under medical care, many receiving medicine for mental illnesses. That’s about 74 percent of the jail population.

So when Dr. Norris Turner, a representative from Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems, Inc., asked how much we thought it was costing American taxpayers to incarcerate mentally ill inmates, I knew the bill would be high. And just as I suspected, $15 billion or more was the correct answer.

Turner referred to a study conducted by the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prison inmates and 45 percent of federal prison inmates had symptoms of mental illness. He said incarceration costs twice as much as preventive measures, yet many people lack access to mental health treatment in their communities.

Another speaker, Pete Earley, is author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search through America’s Mental Health Madness.” He talked about his difficulties getting treatment for his son who has a bipolar condition. His son was eventually arrested for breaking and entering and destruction of property in Fairfax County, Va., during a psychotic episode.

“In America, today, if you have a breakdown like my son, the chances of you going to jail versus getting any kind of help are three to one in favor of jail,” said Earley, a father now trying to fix a broken system. “Those are the statistics that made me want to get involved.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter