Mental Illness in Jails: Part 1

Currently, there are about 9,500 men and women behind bars in the Harris County Jails. The actual number changes by the day. In part one of this four-part series, Houston Public Radio's Paul Pendergraft reports, a disproportionate number of those serving time or waiting for a trial, have more than legal trouble....mental illness is widespread among the detainees.

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The Chief Deputy for the Harris County Detention Command is Mike Smith. He oversees all county jail facilities and thousands of detainees. Smith says three in ten inmates inside the county jails has a serious mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia to major depression. Chief Smith says some are properly medicated when they arrive at the jail, but most are not. Chief Smith says, the earlier their condition can be identified and treated, the better it is for everyone.

"If they were off their medication very long, it may start causing behavior problems. They may be in a cell block with 47 other people and sing all night long. That doesn't sit very well with the other people who are trying to sleep....or they can talk to themselves or they can scream or holler. Frequently they are victimized by another inmate if we don't keep a close watch on 'em, so. Early identification of these people is critical to the process and we're trying to improve that."

Smith says the problem, from his perspective, is getting worse.

"Many of your community mental institutions for the poor and middle class have closed down. These people commit minor offenses in some cases some cases are much more serious. And there's really not a lot places to take them, so they end up in jail and unfortunately, in some cases, it's their own family that makes an outcry that they're committing bizarre behavior and minor crimes to get them picked up so they'll get some level of treatment."

The scenario Chief Smith describes is not unique to Harris County. An investigation by the PBS Documentary program "FRONTLINE" estimates there are about 500,000 mentally ill men and women are behind bars in the United States. Chief Smith says here in Harris County, this responsibility is putting an increasing strain on his annual operating budgets.

"Dedicated simply to the care this is Doctor's support, medical support and technical support for mental health technicians is $3.9 million. That does not include the medicines which is another significant....I don't have the figure at my fingertips, but that's probably another million dollars a year just for medication. That doesn't include the medical side either. A lot of mental patients unfortunately have concurrent substance abuse problems or severe medical problems."

This is also a problem within the walls of the Texas Prison System and and that's the focus of tomorrow's report part two of this four part series.

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