Mentally Ill in Jails, Part 1–The Scope of the Problem

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

(Note:   This was not intended to be a long post, but, during its development, it grew like Topsy.  Being painfully aware of my tendency to be wordy and the limitations of a blog regarding long essays, I have broken the post into three parts or installments.  The first examines the extent of the problem; the second looks at what the state and local and regional jails are doing about it, and the third discusses recently-enacted legislation that represents a positive step forward.)

In meeting after meeting over the previous years, the most common lament of sheriffs has been the number of mentally ill people in their jails.  They point out that their facilities were not designed to house the mentally ill, their officers have not been trained to deal with the mentally ill, and they have not been adequately funded to provide treatment to these inmates.  In short, the mentally ill do not belong in jails.

The numbers bear out the sheriffs’ concerns.  In June, 2018 (the latest date for which data is available), there were at least 7,852 people known or suspected to be mentally ill housed in the Commonwealth’s local and regional jails.  That was almost 20 percent of the total number of inmates housed in jails that month.  Of the total number of female inmates (6,946), more than a third (2,395) were deemed mentally ill.  More than 16 percent of the male inmates were reported as mentally ill.

To put this data into a different perspective, in June, 2018, the jails held 4,124 persons diagnosed  with a serious mental illness (schizophrenia/delusional, bi-polar or major depression, or PTSD).  At that time, the state’s mental health hospitals had about 1,500 beds for the seriously mentally ill.  In summary, almost three times as many seriously mentally ill persons were in Virginia jails as there were in its mental hospitals.

Virginia is not unique in the nation in regard to incarcerating mentally ill people in jail.   In fact, it is a national problem.  And, the issues, related to this problem, including its relationship to the push decades ago to deinstutionalize the mentally ill, are too numerous and complex for a blog post of this nature. (Frankly, many of those issues are beyond my expertise, as well.)  My purpose here is to highlight the issue and point out some of the steps being taken to address it.

It is not as if policymakers are unaware of this situation.  As indicated earlier, sheriffs often bring it up at public meetings.  The legislature has been briefed on it by staff.  (The person who was most instrumental in keeping this subject in front of the General Assembly was Dick Hickman, now-retired senior policy analyst for the Senate Finance Committee.  See one of his briefings here (the discussion of the mentally ill starts on slide no. 20)).  The major legislative effort to address the treatment of the mentally ill in the Commonwealth, the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century (also known as the “Deeds Commission”) has a work group devoted to mental health services in jails.

Jamycheal MItchell

Occasionally, the subject bursts into the headlines. The most infamous example was that of Jamycheal Mitchell.  He was a young man who suffered from bi-polar disorder and schizophrena who, after being arrested and jailed for shoplifting $5 worth of junk food, wasted away for 101 days and died in a jail cell.  (See reports here and here.)

In short, the jails have become the dumping ground for the Commonwealth’s mentally ill.

Source note:  Virginia Compensation Board, Mental Illness in Jails Report, 2018