Jail is no place for someone suffering from mental illness, and more funding and attention needs to be directed to finding alternatives for the mentally ill who find themselves in violation of the law, said Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown.
He spoke Monday to a group at the Statesboro Regional Library, where several attended a meeting of the Statesboro chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. He outlined the challenges law enforcement and jailers face when dealing with people who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses.
Law enforcement officers “come into contact with these people every day,” he said. Deputies are trained to recognize and respond properly to persons experiencing mental breakdowns, but even so, arresting such a person and placing them in a jail cell never helps the situation, he said.
Even when a crime may have been committed, “they don’t need to be in jail. We don’t want them in jail,” he said.
Many times when a mentally ill person ends up behind bars, it’s for minor misdemeanors, and the right solution would be to get the person help, he said. But with a deficit of choices, often the placement is in jail.
Hospitals and counseling centers have limited bed space, and the state has closed or ended many resources for mental illness cases. In order to find a solution, the community needs to get involved, he said.
“We need a lot of networking,” Brown said.
Writing lawmakers, making phone calls and taking an interest in the issue is what is needed to get the state to increase funding for more hospitals and programs for the mentally ill, he said.
A lot of times, those with mental or emotional challenges get into trouble when they do not take their medications consistently. He referred to a number of inmates at the jail who he said are “repeat offenders” in that they return time after time after making wrong decisions due to being off medications.
There is a need for more programs and resources to help monitor such people to help keep them on track, he said.
Placing mentally ill inmates with the general population is not good, he said.
“I’m telling you what is wrong … and you need to hear it,” he said.
Brown spoke of pending expansions at the Bulloch County Jail that will provide padded cells, a separate unit for inmates at risk, and a medical unit to house staff to provide better treatment and care for inmates with special needs. However, until the state steps up and improves the way mentally ill residents are treated, the problem will remain, he said.
“I can’t be anything but real with you folks,” he told a crowd consisting of nursing students, local mental health medical professionals and advocates. “It’s all about the almighty dollar.”
When a crime is committed that involves a suspect with mental illness, and there are no beds available at area hospitals and treatments centers, the only choice “is to lock them up,” he said.
Bulloch County Jail
Bulloch County Jail Administrator Kenny Thompson also spoke during the meeting, describing the things he sees on a daily basis.
“It is sad when you see a 21-year-old with the mind of a 5-year-old in our facility,” he said.
It’s also sad to see repeat arrests because family members find themselves at a loss as to how to help their loved ones, facing limited resources, he said. “People wash their hands” of relatives who, due to untreated and uncontrolled mental issues, commit crimes repeatedly and end up jailed.
A doctor visits the Bulloch County Jail once a week to treat patients, he said, though “I wish it was every day.” The doctor may see 25 patients that day, but “80 more are waiting to see her.”
Again, funding shortfalls limit the availability of adequate care.
”The assistance we need is not there,” he said.
With a former state mental hospital in Milledgeville closed and limited space at Georgia Regional Hospital, “What do we do?”
Like Brown, he urged residents to call, write or speak to legislators about the need for more funding to handle mental illness in the state.
Bulloch County Jail nurse Lynn Seamans talked about the challenges and issues faced when treating mentally ill inmates and trying to find placement for them.
“We are taking two steps forward and 10 steps back,” she said.
One frustration she has is that places like Georgia Regional Hospital in Savannah consider jailed inmates to be the least important. The hospitals are obligated to take walk-in patients and other at-risk cases before jailed people. The reasoning is that “they are in jail, so they are in a safe place,” she said. “We are at the bottom of the list.”
While in jail, the inmates are helped by the nurses “getting them back on their meds,” but when they are released, often there is no support to keep them on track and they re-offend, Seamans said.
Brown said as of Monday, there were 396 inmates in the jail. Seamans said almost a quarter of the jail population suffers from some type of mental illness.
Bulloch County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Bill Black also addressed the upcoming jail expansion plans to offer better handling of mentally ill inmates.
The idea is to have “a medical staff 24/7” one day, he said.
A new building approved by Bulloch County commissioners will be half admission, half medical, he said. The new unit will be like “a small doctor’s office.”
While the building itself will be paid for with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, that doesn’t pay the staff, he said. Future funding from state and other sources will be necessary to fully provide for the needs of inmates with special conditions.
Black also suggested the community become more involved in demanding the state come up with ways to increase funding that will provide help and alternatives to placing — and keeping — mentally ill persons in jail cells.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.