Inmates in crisis: Have jails become mental health facilities?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Barbara Harris’ heart is overflowing. She feels so much joy talking about her grandchildren.

“I have five grandkids, two granddaughters and three grandsons, and I love them with my heart.  They’re my grandbabies,” she says.

It is a far cry from the pain she felt serving multiple jail sentences in both Richmond and Riverside.  It is only after doing the crime and the time that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  A decade of treatment helped Harris realize her past cocaine and alcohol use and reckless behavior were attempts to self-medicate symptoms.

218482793FA3421AB94294C48D97CDBB“She has been a major success story for our program,” explains Jimmie Spragans of Visions Family Services in Petersburg.

Visions works with former inmates like Harris to try to keep them out once they are released.  However, those who cannot afford mental healthcare on the outside are the most vulnerable.

“We’re seeing that they’re repeat offenders.  They’re going back into the system,” Spragans says.

Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody says he has seen it over and over in his 48 years in law enforcement.

“This is a mental health issue, and jails are not where they are supposed to be.  They need to be in a mental health facility,” says Woody.  “This jail has been a dumping ground for those that are mentally ill for some time.”

According to numbers released from the Richmond Sheriff’s Department, the Richmond City Justice Center spent $136,000 on psychotropic drugs in 2015.  Just in the month of June, the jail housed 128 men and 46 women for mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Many of those individuals were there for nonviolent offenses.

“Treatment, treatment, treatment and not lockup, lockup, lockup and confined and isolated.  They get worse, they don’t get better,” Woody says.  “Treat the cause instead of just putting a Band-Aid on the wound.”

“We’re able to help bring that part out, bring that into the limelight and provide them with the care and services they need,” Spragans explains.

Spragans says 70-percent of his clients thrive when they have mental health support.  Without that crucial piece of the puzzle, though, some patients act out and are locked up in jails again.

“They need bigger mental health facilities instead of bigger jails,” Woody says.  “That’s where the real problem is, having the funds so that we will have the proper places for them to go.”

Woody calls for more action by legislators to keep up with how law enforcement has evolved.  Departments including Richmond and now offer crisis intervention team training, so officers can try to find an alternative to an arrest.  There are also mental health dockets to speed up the court process for patients.

Programs like the one at Visions also offer former inmates, like Harris, guidance and medication management.

“It’s very helpful to me,” she says.

Today Harris controls her bipolar disorder and refuses to allow it to control her fate.

“I already headed the other way, and it wasn’t good.  And this is the way for me, and it’s good for my spirit.  It’s good for me,” Harris says.  “Life is beautiful.  It’s only what you make it, and God is good all the time.”

Visions also offers residential, day support  and in-home support for individuals battling mental health conditions.  Click here for more information.

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