The Miami-Dade County Jail is Florida’s largest psychiatric facility, says the Miami Herald. Psychotic inmates sleep on a tile floor or rusted metal bed frames, without sheets, blankets, or mattresses. They stay in their cells for 24 hours a day. No books, no TV, no visitors, no toothbrush, no eating utensils, no clothes. The newspaper’s description: “They screech and cower at unseen demons. They pace furiously and rip their paper gowns off. They urinate on the floor and bathe in the toilet. The noise never stops, the fluorescent lights mask the passing of days, and the psychiatrist treats patients through a three-inch-wide ‘chow hatch’ in a steel door.” Says Joseph Poitier, the jail psychiatrist: “I don’t even try to describe to people what’s going on up here. It’s beyond talking about.”
The scene is one consequence of a nationwide failure to care for the severely mentally ill, a situation created over 40 years by the closing of psychiatric hospitals. They were supposed to be replaced by local treatment centers, but the new system never received enough funding and has offered fragmented services at best. “Jails and prisons have become, in effect, the country’s front-line mental health providers,” says the group Human Rights Watch.
Some states, like New York, have made significant strides in keeping the mentally ill in treatment and out of jail, but Florida has been slow to move, says the Herald. “This is our biggest failure,” said Miami-Dade County Court Judge Steve Leifman. “It’s this cycle of despair.”
In Miami-Dade County, where the percentage of people suffering serious mental illness is between two and three times the national average, the justice system is overloaded with a population it was never meant to care for. At any given time, an average of 600 inmates have mental illness serious enough for them to be segregated from the general population. Ten years ago, the number was about 300. “It’s a test of your faith,” said Officer Clarence Clem, a pastor who has worked in the jail for 19 years. “There’s got to be a better solution than this.”