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Local jails filled with mental illness

Posted at 6:56 PM, Feb 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-12 06:52:44-05

FLORENCE, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - Inside the Pinal County Jail there are more than 1,100 inmates there for crimes of varying degree, but more than half of them have one thing in common.

"Over half of our population has mental health issues," said Sheriff Paul Babeu.

More than 50 percent of those incarcerated in Pinal County have some underlying mental health problem. It's the same in other county jails in Southern Arizona and around the country. A 2006 national study put the number at 64 percent with similar statistics for prisons. 

Babeu says his jail is ill equipped to provide quality mental health services to that many people.

"Yes we do screening, yes we do outpatient services and support here in our facility, but we are not equipped to do that. That is primarily not our job, right?" he said.

Not everyone in the jail has multiple personalities like some may imagine. The illnesses among inmates range from something like anxiety or depression, to severe substance abuse, to psychotic episodes. Jail staff must take care of all problems.

Babeu says this is "the outsourcing of caring for those with mental illness."

For the jail to take care of that many people, it takes significant resources.

"They are very busy," said Pinal County Health Director, Tom Schryer. "The psychiatrist alone did 212 visits [last month], so over 50 a week."

"Medication costs alone, 70 percent of what we spend on drugs in the jail are spent on behavioral health medication. That is hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on just medication," he added.

When an inmate's stay at the Pinal County Jail is over and they are released into the community, Babeu says they often come right back.

"Literally they are on a hamster wheel," he said.

This is called recidivism. Babeu says some inmates leave jail, never get the help they need in their community, and return to crime. He says that is a cycle that needs to be broken to help get to the bottom of this.

"As a result, there are things that will slide through the cracks," added Schryer.

A poignant example in Arizona - Jared Loughner. 

He showed signs of mental illness before shooting and killing six people, injuring 13 others.

An Federal Bureau of Investigation case study was released years later. It mentions a number of instances at school, on social media, or in the community where he showed erratic behavior but ultimately he never got sufficient help.

There is some progress being made in Tucson, to help those with mental illness in the community and keep them out of jail. The Tucson Police Department recently unveiled their Mental Health Support Team (MHST).

"What we are at our core is a jail diversion unit," said Sgt. Jason Winsky. He works with the unit. 

He says in 2015, they took about 400 calls for service and only brought two people to jail.

"Encarceration is one of the most expensive things we do as law enforcement," said Winsky.

MHST was recently involved in high-profile bomb threat at the Tucson Police Department Westside Substation. They will respond to situation where someone is believed to be suffering from a mental illness.

However, Winsky says most people suffering from some kind of mental illness are victims of crime rather than criminals themselves. If they do commit a crime, he says it is generally a low-level misdemeanor.

"We know that over time, treatment works. It is over 90 percent effective over time," said Winsky. "We know that if we keep re-directing people back into treatment, the outcomes are better."

Their goal is to help the people in the community, rather than doing so in jail.