Mental Illness in Jails: Part 2

Yesterday at this time, we reported on the challenge caused by an increasing number of mentally ill inmates in the Harris County jails. Today, we'll review the problem in the state prisons. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports ten percent of the prison population is mentally ill. Houston Public Radio's Paul Pendergraft reports.

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The Texas prison system population is about 150,000, so an estimated 15,000 inmates are diagnosed with what's referred to as "the big three". That's schizophrenia, bi-polar and major depression. The views on how to deal with this are as different as the people you ask, but prison officials report, they're more aware of and better equipped to deal with this problem than in the past.

"Texas is one of the few states that has targeted programs for offenders with mental illness......"

That's Dee Wilson and she's the Director of the Texas Correctional Office of Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairment.

"We have specialized parole officers that have case loads for just mentally ill individuals and having that special expertise, whether it be treatment or supervision, makes all the difference in the world."

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 43 million dollars will be spent on managed psychiatric care for state inmates in fiscal year 2006. That's two percent of the $2 billion operating budget, and it's an increase from budgets past. The money pays for in-house care and community based programs including treatments and medicines. Dee Wilson says the state also spends about $15 million on local programs....including here in Houston and Harris County.

"Ya'll have the first state hospital diversion program that's being operated in the jail. And that's to help people restore competency so they can proceed within the criminal justice system. Your local MHMR center has....and we pay for this as well....all of your felony courts and most of your misdemeanor courts have mental health court liaisons to help them on sentencing recommendations and assessment activities within the courtroom. You have a mental health court with Judge Ellis."

One Houstonian who has spent many years gathering information on this topic is Ray Hill. Hill is a self-described "activist" and learned a lot about prison life by being there. He's spent time in a Texas prison and for the last 26 years, has been the host of "The Prison Show", a monthly call-in public radio talk show. Hill admits to having issues with how some inmates are treated, but says the work done by MHMRA doctors and staff is honorable.....and says an honest perspective is important to have.

"The issue at the state level is to try to take whatever mental capacity they have and train them to function in that society. And then they get them out of the more expensive mental health beds and into the general population beds and that's where it gets real tragic. Because prison society is very predatory, very userous...it's not a nice place to be. And the most vulnerable suffer mistreatment from the hands of others."

Tomorrow at this time, in part three of this series, we'll hear from a local advocate who claims the concept of prevention is not being addressed and it something that could prove to be the ultimate solution.

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