By criminal defense attorney Mary Nerino, representing clients who face DUI, speeding, and a wide range of criminal charges practices in Northern Virginia.
Leaders in the Virginian government have been trying to solve the mental health debate for decades. However, recent incidents such as the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail and Seung-Hui Cho murdering over 30 students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2014 have caused the conversation to increase in fervor.
And this conversation over the severity of mental health and the lack of funding/programs to combat this problem has been highlighted by a recent study conducted by the non-profits Treatment Advocacy Center and Public Citizen. This study shows the problems that county jails across the country face when dealing with mentally ill inmates.
A rising number of mentally ill inmates met with a lack of training concerning mental illness by police officers has led to a growing problem that needs to be addressed in Virginia and around the country.
According to the study almost half of the prisons surveyed reported that less than two percent of initial training time is spent teaching prison sheriffs and staff how to deal with mentally ill inmates. And over 60 percent of the prisons surveyed said they spend less than two hours a year on continual education when it comes to mental health concerns that may arise with inmates.
These two statistics are even more shocking when the study showed that over a third of the prisons surveyed reported that at least ten percent of their time is devoted to dealing with the control and care of these mentally ill inmates.
The disconnect between the amount of training and the actual time spent dealing with the mentally ill is disconcerting. Especially when you are dealing with a prison population who you are presumably looking to have reenter society as normal, functional human beings.
The study recommends that, whenever possible, mentally ill people who commit crimes be sent to outpatient programs instead of jails. They call for the federal and state governments to expand the number and reach of their outpatient programs and to expand the number of beds in order to meet the growing demand for these types of services.
The study also calls for better training by county jails so officers on duty can adequately and effectively deal with mentally ill inmates in a constructive manner.
Changes in the way we deal with mentally ill people before they reach jail cells is also equally important. With the consistent shutting down of mental health facilities over the past forty years, many of these patients have been forced out onto the street with little help or assistance.
And in the United States, you cannot receive long-term psychiatric care unless you have reached a “point of crisis.” Therefore, many of the mentally ill are placed into jails before they are able to reach that marker of instability.
Many of them committing crimes not because they are of criminal intent, but because they are trying to survive on the streets in rough, unsettling conditions. And according to Tom Cook, who is a sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, “When the day comes to release them, their issues are greater than when they came in.”
And these concerns about the mentally ill are not just for show for the Virginian people. For some, it is extremely personal.
A woman named Tammy Farmer from Chesterfield County, Virginia knows just how dangerous and upsetting dealing with mental illness can be. Her son Thomas Jeter died of an overdose at their home in 2011. He was arrested for stealing cough medicine and sentenced to time behind bars.
While behind bars, he was stripped naked and was not allowed to take his medication for severe depression and anxiety. She believes that the actions taken by the police while her son was in prison ultimately crushed him and led to his death.
Stories like Tammy’s are all too common throughout the state of Virginia and are the exact reason why studies like the ones done by the Treatment Advocacy Center and Public Citizen need to be taken seriously and implemented sooner rather than later.