Jailing the mentally ill shows just how low we can go

Over the years, I’ve talked to mental patients who’ve been parked in county jail cells. I’ve seen the look of fear and abandonment in their eyes.

I’ve heard them ask: “Why is this happening to me?” And, unfortunately in a few instances, I’ve heard them scream, cry and beg for relief that county jail personnel aren’t qualified to deliver on a good day and don’t really care about delivering on a bad day.

That’s not an indictment of jail personnel, either. It’s just the hard fact of underpaid, understaffed correctional officers trying to manage a bunch of real criminals while warehousing a mental patient who shouldn’t be in a jail cell in the first place.

I’ve seen hardened county sheriffs driven to the brink of tears over being put in the position of incarcerating the mentally ill, and the families of those patients pushed past that brink into utter despair.

Why are the mentally ill being jailed in the first place? The reasons as familiar as they were when I first heard them 25 years ago – the patients got off their meds, the patients’ families can’t control them at home, there are no beds available in custodial care, or there’s a delay in the legal commitment process.

Bottom line, either the patient or the system – or both – breaks down.

Sid Salter
Clarion Ledger
8/18/10