Monday, February 12, 2007

Corrections system struggles with mentally ill

If you watched CBS' 60 Minutes last night, you saw the story of Timothy Souders, a Michigan man who was mentally ill, incarcerated for a petty crime, and who last year was "chained to a concrete slab by prison guards until he died of thirst." Watch it to see why typical corrections officers just aren't equipped to safely manage such inmates. It was a grim tale caused by a combination of 19th century restraint practices, untrained guards and a lack of medical staff equipped to handle mentally ill inmates.

Texas faces its own struggles with handling the mentall ill through the corrections system instead of health care providers. Thirty percent of Texas prison inmates are former clients of the state's mental health system, and mentally ill inmates who've been declared incompetent remain warehoused for months in jail with inadequate treatment waiting for hospital space to open up.

Two items I saw this weekend describe some of the local efforts to address this problem. In Corpus Christi, Nueces County officials just received a three year grant to create a jail diversion program for nonviolent mentally ill defendants. In addition to specialized police training,
The grant has helped pay for three new caseworkers at MHMR to work only with the people taken to the triage unit by police. Unlike most MHMR caseworkers, who handle about 200 to 250 cases a month, the new caseworkers will handle about 20 a month
Meanwhile, Galveston Judge Susan Criss, whose new blog recently got a nice review in The Galveston Daily News, describes that county's MHMR Jail Diversion Task Force. She describes what that county has accomplished in the area since it began to focus on the problem several years ago:

Our Task Force developed a electronic database that is shared with the jail, law enforcement, UTMB, and the Gulf Coast. Records are cross referenced to identify which inmates are mentally ill. Medical personnel in the jail can learn what medications and treatment are needed. Social workers are able to find services for these persons quicker. Recently the Gulf Coast Center secured a grant that enabled them to put a Mental Health Liasion in the jail. Clayton Watkins now identifies mentally ill inmates and screens them for services. He tries to coordinate aftercare for those about to be released.

We developed a system to alert the judges and attorneys of which inmates are mentally ill as early in the criminal litigation process as possible.

Both Brazoria and Galveston County now have mobile crisis units staffed by social workers and medical personnel. They go to those mentally ill persons who missed appointments or who are in a crisis. Their purpose is to stabilize these persons before they become involved in circumstances that lead to arrest or trips to the emergency room.

We still have much work to do. There is not enough money to provide care to all in need. We plan on setting up assisited living homes and developing and expanding coordination between Juvenile Justice and Mental Health service providers. We need more mobile crisis units. More psyciatric beds are crucial.

In Galveston County we hope to set up a Mental Health Court. Brazoria County already has one. This will not require setting up an entirely new court but shifting dockets and case management assignments.

I am proud of what our Task Force has accomplished. There remains an incredible amount of work left to do.

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