Bigger jail no solution for the mentally ill

On Oct. 22, the Mail Tribune printed an editorial regarding the need for a larger jail. We agree with that assessment, but wanted to expand on their sentence: “The overcrowded jail also lacks space to adequately serve the mentally ill inmates ...”

First, thank you to the writer for including the mentally ill at all. Adequate space for a mental health unit would allow the discontinuation of the current practice of solitary confinement to keep inmates with mental illness “safe” from general population.

However, more jail space would not address the underlying problem that too many citizens with mental illness are being warehoused in our jails and prisons.

In the '70s and '80s it was agreed that the large asylums and mental hospitals were not working. They were deemed inhumane, overly expensive and unsuccessful in their treatment. It was decided — by many parties — that smaller, community-based treatment and housing would be cheaper and have better results.

For a time, some community-based programs did crop up, but then they were cut; the money from the asylums and hospitals was not transferred to the communities.

Now, we have a lack of housing, inpatient and outpatient treatment options, and psychiatrist availability. If a sufferer of mental illness is symptomatic, acting out or unable to care for themselves, they frequently end up arrested. And it would, indeed, be extremely helpful if there was space at the jail to provide mental health screenings and treatment. Some jails in the state have a triage-type system, where persons with mental illness or addiction get directed to treatment, rather than jail, skipping traumatic incarceration altogether. Perhaps we could model our jail after those examples?

Over 60 percent of the 2.1 million incarcerated in the United States have a mental illness. It’s unknown how many of those are imprisoned because of their symptoms, but we can guess it’s a fair number.

These are people who do not choose mental illness. People who, when stable, do not want to harm others or cause problems. People who are a part of this community, like anyone else.

The ill deserve care. Being imprisoned is the opposite of healing. Adapting to the rules and structure of jail can be especially challenging for someone already struggling with mental illness. They are easily victimized, frequently retreat inward and experience worsening paranoia and anxiety.

We need crisis intervention, treatment and long-term inpatient options, not just hospital emergency rooms and jails. We need housing, assisted living options and a respite center where patients can go after being released from jail.

If we can talk about raising funds for a larger jail, should we not also discuss funds to address one of the sources of the jail’s overcrowding? As Ghandi said: “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” As of now, we are “treating” them with loss of freedom, self-worth and healing.

It is easy to ignore a problem that is locked away, out of view. But we need to be brave and strong, and face it head-on.

— Meesha Blair is a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Oregon (NAMI-SO) board of directors and chair of the organization's advocacy committee.

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