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Overcrowded and Understaffed… what to do about the incarcerated mentally ill?

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Overcrowded correctional facilities are a serious criminal justice issue that many states in our country faced. And, in times of sharp budget cuts that involve closing facilities, laying off workers or implementing hiring freezes, the problems of capacity are worsened by a lack of sufficient staffing. This is an issue that affects all inmates, but one group of inmates is being particularly affected: mentally ill inmates.

The Pilot Online recently took a look at the situation of mentally ill inmates in the Chesapeake Correctional Center and what they discovered isn’t just about overcrowding or ensuring adequate treatment (although those issues are important); also at stake is the safety of other inmates and staff who work with the mentally ill.

Currently at the Chesapeake Correctional Center, there are 300 mentally ill patients, of which an estimated 50 should really be in a mental health facility where adequate treatment would be available. And that number is only expected to grow. An outside consulting group estimated that by 2031, the jail will need 504 mental health beds. Those numbers far exceed the facility’s capacity for housing mentally ill inmates, which currently stands at 21 beds dedicated specifically for the mentally ill and another 21 for inmates with general medical problems, which are frequently used for mentally ill inmates.

Those numbers mean that more and more mentally ill inmates are being housed with the general population. And both the facility and the staff are ill-equipped to deal with that population. As the report in the Pilot Online points out, as funding for mental health has been cut, it is increasingly difficult to get inmates who need psychiatric or other care transferred to facilities who can meet their needs.

This means that inmates who suffer from sometimes severe mental health issues can pose a safety threat for the correctional facility. Lack of appropriate medication and therapy mean that symptoms including violent and delusional behavior can emerge. That brings with it a real possibility for violence within the facility.

There is no easy solution for overcrowded correctional facilities, or for assisting mentally ill inmates specifically. But the question here isn’t just about the number of beds. It’s also about where those beds are located and the professional services and staff available to ensure safety.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC). The attorneys publish articles and edit the Legal Examiner for the Virginia Beach, NorfolkandNortheast North Carolina regions as pro bono service.