On an average day, about 10 percent of the 90 individuals held in the tiny Cortland County Jail in upstate New York are suffering from mental illness.
That would be a significant number in any rural facility, but Cortland has only 57 designated beds to begin with─along with 30 additional slots in a former exercise space that has been converted into a dormitory.
So the presence of people who would be better handled in an institution rather than a jail adds an extra burden for prison authorities.
And the number of such individuals is “increasing,” says Cortland County Jail Capt. Nick Lynch.
Helping an individual with the right treatment instead of forcing him to languish in jail can make a huge difference—if the need is recognized in time.
Cortland County Undersheriff Budd Rigg tells the story of an out-of-towner who was arrested after breaking a window at a local supermarket. The man was under the influence of drugs, but during his initial screening, officials realized that substance abuse was a sign of something more serious.
“It became more and more evident, (there) was a serious mental health issue,” Rigg recalled.
Referrals were made to get help for the man. It got to the point where he had to be on constant watch, due to concerns that he might harm himself.
“We can’t force medication in jail like they can in an institution,” Rigg said. “So we finally got this individual to an institution through OMH (the state Office of Mental Health), and got him stabilized on medications.
“(When) he came back, he was a different person.”
Once back on his medication, the man was returned to jail until he went before a judge.
“The charges weren’t that severe; they realized it was mental health, psychosis,” Riggs said of the man, who worked for a military contractor. The individual paid restitution for the damage he caused, and was allowed to return home to North Carolina.
His mother called Riggs a month later, crying.
“(She thanked) us for …not just throwing him in a cell and locking him away, or sending him off to prison,” Rigg said.
The state has ordered the county to find a way to relieve jail overcrowding, but its ability to divert inmates with mental-health troubles to other facilities and programs is limited, and the number of mental-health facilities available is dropping.
New York State has closed several mental health facilities, effectively forcing many people with mental health to end up in jail when they have brushes with the law, said Bill Zipfel, superintendent of the Genesee County Jail in New York.
The state Department of Mental Health closed about nine centers in a three-year period.
In 2017, the state served about 139,000 people with mental health issues, a fraction of the estimated 865,000 mentally ill people, reports the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank.
The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued a long-term policy of trying to reduce mental-health facilities. Non-forensic state psychiatric centers lost 15 percent of their capacity since 2014, while their average daily census dropped 12 percent.
It’s an issue nationwide.
People with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the U.S. about two million times a year, according to the Stepping Up Initiative — a national effort to divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment.
Almost three-quarters of those inmates have drug and alcohol use problems.
“A lot of mental health is masked with self-medication, drug use,” Rigg said.
New York State Assembly Member Gary Finch (R-Springport), a member of the assembly corrections committee, said the state’s closure of mental health facilities amounted to “putting people on the street” with no resources for help. Then they end up in jail.
Instead of providing funding for new programs, Finch said, the state should invest in existing programs that can help people.
In the last five years, Cortland County’s female population in jail has gone up about 300 percent — the largest growing inmate population in the county and state. Many of the female inmates are victims of years of abuse, but their underlying problems are rarely recognized, said Riggs.
“It’s 100 percent a mental health issue,” Rigg said.
Abuse is not always the reason for mental illness among inmates, Rigg said, although it is the reason for most.
There are some who have had a mental health diagnosis all their life, went off their medication because they started feeling better — from the medication — and then did something they normally wouldn’t, like tax evasion, Rigg said.
“Some of them are truly only here because of the mental health and people just didn’t know what to do with them,” Rigg said. “They have done something, annoyed someone on Main Street, and ended up in jail.”
In the absence of state help, the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office has begun to be more pro-active, Rigg said.
Every individual entering the Cortland County Jail is screened for mental illness, Rigg said.
“One hundred percent of our staff are trained in lower-level mental health issues,” Rigg said. “Our staff is trained in screening and identifying any emergency needs.”
A correction officer watching a housing unit is able to identify behavior changes and knows when to intervene, Rigg said.
Unlike many jails, the county mental health authorities have paid for a forensic counselor on site, who is available 35 hours a week for one-on-one counseling.
“She meets with people regularly so we don’t get those flair ups like you see in other jails, and, knock on wood, that helps with our suicide attempts,” Rigg said.
“That one office, 35 hours a week, is worth its weight in gold.”
The lack of mental health centers does create a void, Rigg said. But Cortland County has a Mobile Crisis Team, which he said helps make sure those with a mental illness never make it to jail, or so police don’t have to get involved.
The team, formed at the beginning of the year, is a grant-funded program run by Liberty Resource of Syracuse, N.Y., which assists all law enforcement agencies in Cortland Count.y. There are teams in four other counties, too. Those on the team in Cortland Cortland all live in the county, and work for local agencies, such as the county Mental Health Department, Cortland Regional Medical Center, county Probation Department and others.
In the past three years, between the five counties, the Mobile Crisis Team has diverted 80 percent of the people it has helped from either going to the hospital or jail, said Theresa Humennyj, regional program director for Liberty Resource.
While sometimes police involvement may be necessary, Rigg acknowledged having an officer present, and potentially having to handcuff someone could escalate the situation.
That’s where the Mobile Crisis Team steps in.
“People get anxious or scared,” Humennyj said about how people act when there is a police presence. “It turns into he said-she said blaming, and a person might make bad choices.
“We try to come in so it doesn’t get to that point and they avoid jail.”
The teams divert between 2 percent and 3 percent of the jail’s population to other services, Rigg said.
“Our local community has done so much on the outside,” Rigg said. “So the more we address the issues in the community, the more it helps the jail.”
This is a condensed and edited version of the first part of a five-part series examining jails and mental illness. Nicholas Graziano, a staff writer at The Cortland Standard, is a 2018 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. The complete article and other parts of the series can be accessed here.