LA Jails: We Don’t Want To Be Gen-Pop Mental Hospitals

Bondsman MargieLos Angeles Jails

Those who work at the LA County Jails say the screams of mentally ill inmates can be heard throughout the cell blocks.   Some bang on their cell doors for hours on end.  Others, who have been restrained using suicde-proof gowns cry and howl from dusk until dawn.

If you were to walk through the halls of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, you’d see cells that have been reserved for the most severely mentally ill.  Some of the doors even have labels on them; one might read “spitter”, while the next will say “combative”.

Even though it is the largest jail in the world, even the jailers agree there has to be a better solution.

In a recent interview, Los Angeles County assistant sheriff Terri McDonald called jailing the mentally ill a “shameful social and public-safety issue”. Jail officials throughout the county admit they’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to incarcerating the mentally ill.

Treating the underlying problem

Just last week, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved more than three quarters of a million dollars in funding geared toward treating the mentally ill as opposed to locking them up.

A growing number of psychiatric hospitals have been closing in recent years, they said, and many of those former patients are finding themselves inside county jails.   As it stands, Los Angeles County jails spend more than $850 million on the jail system.

It is speculated that if programs geared toward getting the mentally ill treatment, the County could not only reduce its inmate population, it could save hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same time.

The ACLU points out that it costs less than $20,000 to house and treat a mentally ill patient each year; it costs more than $50,000 to incarcerate them; the financials alone are a compelling reason to place greater focus on alternatives to jailing the mentally ill.

Dealing with the issue at hand

Jailers estimate that in Los Angeles jails, about 15 percent of the people who are booked each day have some sort of underlying mental disorder; in the past several years, the number of county jail inmates who are on some sort of psychiatric drug has increased by more than 200 percent.

Not only is this a “jails” problem; it’s a community problem, too.

The ACLU said they also believe that helping the mentally ill get into treatment programs may also help with homelessness, because the number of people living on city streets is likely to be reduced.

There is a significant transient population that could benefit from treatment, they said, and doing so is likely to help revitalize neighborhoods.

McDonald said that over the years, county jails have become de facto mental hospitals and she hopes that as time moves on, the will move from focus locking such individuals to placing greater emphasis on jail diversion for those in need of mental heath treatment.