Jailing mental patients is an old problem for state

Published 5:00 pm Friday, December 2, 2022

By Sid Salter

Mississippi remains the focus of a 2016 U.S. Justice Department lawsuit which alleges, among other things, that the state “violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) by failing to provide adults with mental illness with necessary integrated, community-based mental health services.”  

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on aspects of the case within months.

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The federal complaint alleged “that gaps and weaknesses in the state’s mental health system too often subject adults with mental illness to needless trauma, especially during a crisis.  

According to the complaint, adults with mental illness who experience a crisis in Mississippi often spend days in local emergency rooms and jail holding facilities that are ill-equipped to address their needs, before ultimately being transported to the state’s psychiatric hospitals.” 

A recent Mississippi House committee heard testimony regarding the current state of the state’s mental health system, including a report from a federal court-appointed monitor that on average in this state, 25 mental patients are housed in jails awaiting mental health hospital treatment. Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan testified that the mental health system “is broken” and that jails are not equipped to take care of the mentally ill.

This isn’t a new problem. I remember over 30 years ago visiting the Scott County Jail to observe mentally ill individuals housed in the jail by court order whose only crime was being mentally ill. 

One muscular young man sat on a bare metal bunk, biting on a clenched dirty towel as tears rolled down his cheeks – hopeless, frightened and bereft. The reason? No treatment beds in the state mental hospitals were available.

It’s not as if the taxpayers of Mississippi lack compassion for the issue. 

Mississippi taxpayers have already paid to construct seven crisis mental health centers to help alleviate this problem.

Each of those centers could have taken 16 mental patients out of the county jail cells where they languished untreated after being committed to state custody in the Chancery Courts for mental health treatment. In some cases, mental patients remain incarcerated for as long as six weeks in solitary confinement until bed space opens up at a state or private mental health facility.

As authorized by Senate Bill 3119 and signed into law in 1999, state legislators spent almost $2.4 million each to build the seven crisis mental health centers. The centers are designed to give counties a proper place to house prospective mental patients who had been committed to one of the state mental hospitals for treatment.

The legislation provided construction money for centers in Batesville, Brookhaven, Laurel, Grenada, Newton, Cleveland and Corinth. The centers were constructed, but by 2009, former Gov. Haley Barbour recommended closing six of the seven crisis mental health centers before the shine was off the tile floors of the new buildings. Budget problems, he argued. And the centers closed. In 2016 and 2017, lawmakers cut some $18.3 million in mental health system funding.

Mississippi is still housing mental patients in jail in 2022.

In a speech to the Starkville Rotary Club last week, State Department of Mental Health Executive Director Wendy Bailey admitted that mental patients should not be jailed and that “diversion” to community mental health facilities and other alternatives was the agency’s goal. She said MDMH has made discernible progress in recent years in reducing wait times for mental health crisis intervention and answering and managing emergency calls.

Legislators will have a chance to debate the expansion of a pilot court liaison officer system to help corral and focus existing mental health resources which Bailey said would be helpful.

Bailey seems sincere in her zeal to improve the system. 

I know there are legislators who understand and who care – along with judges and sheriffs. But I also recall long ago when a legislator said I was “overstating the problem” and that jailing a mental patient was “for his own good.”

As I told that gentleman and as I’ve written countless times over the years, if the person languishing in that jail cell awaiting mental health treatment was our son or daughter, he or she would not be cloaked in the political ambivalence and anonymity that has left this disgrace unaddressed for decades. We can, we should do better as citizens.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com