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Report Finds One in Six U.S. Inmates Mentally Ill

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WASHINGTON - One in six inmates in the U.S. prison system is mentally ill, and three times as many mentally ill people are languishing in jail than are receiving treatment in mental hospitals, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

"Prisons have become the nation's primary mental health facilities," said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. program.

Because of financial neglect, disorganization within the correctional system, and fragmented community mental health services such as the closing of state mental institutions, mentally ill people often end up in the judicial system, according to the report being released Wednesday.

Fewer than 80,000 people live in mental health hospitals, but there may be 200,000 to 300,000 mentally ill inmates in the nation's jails and prisons, the report said.

"Deputies are not trained to deal with (mentally ill prisoners)," said Dean Kueter, director of government affairs for the National Sheriffs' Association. "Jails are jails, not mental hospitals."

Human Rights Watch said this lack of expertise has led to gross mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Once in prison, the report said, mentally ill inmates receive an above-average number of disciplinary infractions and are mistreated or neglected.

Because of accrued violations, they often are punished with solitary confinement, which augments their illness, Fellner said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied the existence of a problem in treating convicts with mental illnesses.

"We are able to manage (the mentally ill) at our institutions," said Traci Billingsley, a bureau spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, have introduced legislation to improve the treatment of mentally ill individuals charged with crimes.

The bill would provide up to $200 million in grants over two years for correctional facilities and mental health organizations to create joint programs providing mental health treatment.

Kueter said the Sheriffs' Association supports the bill.

"It would help law enforcement (workers) recognize the mentally ill as mentally ill and not as criminals," Kueter said.

Strickland, a psychologist who worked at a maximum security prison, said many mentally ill offenders are in jail for misdemeanors. He said society should address the issue of mentally ill inmates both to increase public safety and save money.

"If we can keep people from being incarcerated," Strickland said, "it's cost effective."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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