Many of the 3,300 local jails in the U.S. have become treatment centers of last resort for people with serious mental illnesses, most arrested for nonviolent crimes, reports the Associated Press. They are awash in a tide of bookings and releases that make them particularly unsuited for the task. U.S. jails, most of whose 731,000 inmates are trying to make bail or are awaiting trial, hold half as many inmates as prisons do. Last year, jails booked in 11.7 million people, 19 times the number of new prison inmates.
The revolving door complicates the task of screening for mental illness, managing medications, providing care and ensuring inmate safety. “Jails are churning people,” says Henry Steadman, a consultant on how courts and correctional facilities deal with people with mental illnesses. The number of inmates with mental illnesses has risen since the 1970s, after states closed psychiatric hospitals without following through on promises to sustain community treatment programs. As the number of those with serious mental illnesses surpasses 20 percent in some jails, many have struggled to keep up, sometimes putting inmates in jeopardy. At least 9 of the 11 suicides in New York City jails in the past five years came after operators failed to follow safeguards to prevent self-harm by inmates. An AP investigation into the deaths of two mentally ill inmates at the city's Rikers Island complex — one who baked to death in a 101-degree cell in February and the other who sexually mutilated himself last fall — has prompted promises of reform.