Monday, September 21, 2015

As Mental Health Services Decline, Jail Numbers Rise in Tennessee

(Sept. 21, 2015) An estimated two out of every ten inmates at the Rutherford County Jail in Tennessee are being treated for a mental illness. Due to jail overcrowding, these mentally ill inmates are being packed into crowded cells, sleeping on floors, and spending days with little to nothing to occupy their time (“Mental illness harder to handle as jail crowding rises,” Daily News Journal, Sept. 18).
jail-hands“Of our total inmate population, 20 percent have mental health disorders,” said Ken Tucker, director of health services at the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office. “Those statistics have been fairly consistent for the past 10 years.”
But Deputy Mayor Jeff Davidson, who heads the Jail Population Reduction Committee, believes the numbers are much higher when you count those inmates suffering from mental illness who are not being treated.
“I’m told nationwide and here the percentage is 40 percent of the incarcerated population has mental health issues,” Davidson said. “That’s a significant number.”
Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold says the problem is getting worse, and creating unsafe conditions for inmates.
“We’ve seen fights go up in the past few months,” Sheriff Arnold said. “When you’ve got three to a cell, tempers get short; it’s not a humane condition.”
But these issues are not unique to Rutherford County.
“We have a lot of the same issues in the county jails throughout the state, throughout the nation,” said Sheriff Arnold. “We as a society need to adapt to deal with it.”
As mental health services decline, jail populations rise accordingly.
Indeed, the number of individuals with serious mental illness in jails and prisons across the country now exceeds the number in public psychiatric hospitals tenfold.
We have seen countless examples in which a lack of mental health resources led to tragic results, but warehousing those with the most severe mental illnesses in jails in prisons is not the solution.
Tennessee is one of only five states that do not currently authorize involuntary treatment in the community, often called “assisted outpatient treatment (AOT).”
To be sure, the answer to Tennessee’s overcrowded jails and prisons lies in establishing AOT laws in the state and reducing this and other consequences of untreated serious mental illness.
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