‘Warehouses’ for Those with Mental Health Problems


American jails have become warehouses for poor people with mental health problems, according to a new report from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

The report finds that nearly 75 percent of those in jail are charged with nonviolent crime. Three out of five have not been convicted of any crime, but “are simply too poor to post even low bail to get out while their cases are being processed.”

“Among the many disadvantaged people in jails, the largest group by far is people with a mental illness. Jails have been described as the ‘treatment of last resort’ for those who are mentally ill and as ‘de facto mental hospitals’ because they fill the vacuum created by the shuttering of state psychiatric hospitals and other efforts to deinstitutionalize people with serious mental illness during the 1970s, which occurred without creating adequate resources to care for those displaced in the community,” researchers for the study write.

The report notes that jails have disproportionately impacted communities of color. African Americans are jailed at nearly four times the rate of white Americans, according to the report.

“Locally, disparities can be even starker: in New York City, for example, blacks are jailed at nearly 12 times and Latinos more than five times the rate of whites.”

New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte spoke Monday about mental health issues at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Ponte, who was appointed commissioner in 2013, said he's instituted mental health training for corrections officers.

“Someone who's mentally ill will respond differently than just your average inmate,” Ponte said, adding that the corrections officer job description currently makes no mention of working with mentally ill inmates.

Ponte was among several corrections officials at the conference who said jails are not equipped to adequately treat and handle those struggling with mental illness.

Read the Vera report HERE.

Editor’s Note: For more coverage of the conference, which included corrections officials, law enforcement officers, academics and journalists from across the country click HERE.

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