DIXON – One of the worst inmates that Lee County Assistant Warden Douglas Carlson has ever seen was being held just a year ago.
The man was jailed July 25, 2012, on a theft charge and deemed, 2 weeks later, unfit to stand trial. But the 29-year-old was in the local lockup for a month before he was transferred to Elgin Mental Health Center.
And the way things have been going, especially within the past year, that 4-week wait is on the shorter side.
While in the Lee County Jail, the troubled inmate – who also had been found unfit in 2006 to be tried on two felony charges of aggravated battery – refused to keep his clothes on. He threw feces and urine. He would scream and yell at all hours of the day and night and bang on his bunk, Carlson said.
“This time we didn’t wait for Elgin to tell us they had a bed,” Carlson says. “We forced them to take him.”
Officers were forced to keep the inmate separated in a special cell the jail has designated for inmates with mental disabilities; they call it “G block.”
In G block, inmates have no access to entertainment. There’s no television, no radio, and they’re allowed to have books only if they don’t destroy them. The lights stay on 24 hours a day.
But it’s for their own safety – when placed in cells with the other inmates, they’re often beaten and ridiculed, jailers say. Separating them is the only way to protect them.
In cases when inmates are especially violent or suicidal, they’re taken to another cell.
This one doesn’t have bars for walls, but a solid door, with a single bed in the middle of a small room with green walls. Attached to the bed are leather straps, which are used when an inmate needs to be restrained.
Stories like this aren’t unusual at the jail, where, Carlson says, wait times have increased for beds at mental health facilities for inmates who really need them.
And at Whiteside County Jail, Lt. Tim Erickson said they’re seeing much of the same.
From 2009 to 2012, states cut more than $1.6 billion for mental health services from their budgets, according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Among states that made the deepest cuts, Illinois was fourth-highest, cutting 31.7 percent, or $187 million, from its mental health budget. So far, that’s caused the closure of two state mental health centers: Tinley Park and Singer.
At the same time, the Department of Human Services is seeing an overall increase in the number of mental health, or “forensic,” beds being requested for inmates who are deemed not fit to stand trial or for those found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The number of forensic admissions to the Illinois Department of Human Services increased from 560 in 2006 to 631 in 2012, according to the DHS.
Dr. Anderson Freeman, deputy director for forensic services at DHS, believes a weak economy is responsible in part for the increase in forensic bed requests.
“Whenever you have economic downturn, you’re going to have more people that have stress and trauma ... and be more apt to have mental health issues,” Freeman says. “And invariably, some part of that population is going to come into contact with the justice system.”
Januari Smith is the DHS communication manager. According to her, the demand has gone up, while the DHS’s resources have gone down.
But the DHS is doing the best it can with what it has, rerouting some of the funds that had been used for the now-closed mental health facilities to maintain community-based care, Smith says.
Lora Thomas, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says it isn’t enough.
“There are fewer community-based services, and so when when people attempt to get services and they’re not treated, things tend to deteriorate in their lives,” Thomas said. “It’s not uncommon for people to get in trouble [with the law] for a variety of things.”
Often, people in need of mental health services will commit misdemeanor offenses, such as making a public scene or arguing with a police officer, that result in jail time. Once such a person is placed in jail, things only get worse, officials say. Sentences can become lengthy.
“The majority of the people who come in that are unfit [to stand trial] come in on charges like criminal trespass or criminal damage to property, where a family has a guy they just can’t control,” Whiteside County’s Erickson said. “So they kick him out of the house, and he keeps coming back on the property, and they end up arresting him.”
Lee County Jail’s unofficial record for longest wait for a mental health bed is held by a 20-year-old who was jailed Feb. 25 on a charge of assaulting a police officer. The man was judged to be unfit in late April, but he wasn’t taken to Elgin until July 25. He spent the entire time at the local jail.
That’s 5 months in which officers and jail staff were charged with taking care of an inmate with a mental disability whom they are not funded, trained or staffed to handle.
“We’re not a medical facility here,” said Sandy Lewis, the nurse at Lee County Jail. “We’re a 40-plus-year-old jail. We’re way under standards for what a jail should be offering, but there’s nothing we can do. The officers aren’t trained psychiatric personnel.”
Of the 41 people in the Lee County Jail on Friday morning, four were waiting for a psychiatric evaluation or to be placed in a mental health facility. One inmate was in cell block G, the one reserved for prisoners with mental health disabilities.
“It’s frustrating for us to know that there is not much we can do for them except to keep them safe and try to make their stay here as easy as possible,” Carlson said.
This isn’t just a local problem. According to a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of mentally ill people incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons jumped from 283,800 in 1998 to 1.26 million in 2005, accounting for more than half of all prison and jail inmates nationwide.
And it’s not just the day-to-day care that’s putting a weight on the jail; it’s the cost.
An inmate with a mental health disability costs the jail, on average, 25 percent more than one with no such disability, Carlson says.
Lee and Whiteside County jails are actually on the lucky side: their physician assistant, Dan Williams, is a psychotherapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology, so he’s trained to treat mental health cases. But he comes only once every 2 weeks. There’s a nurse on staff at Lee County 3 days a week, and at Whiteside they have one 5 days a week.
“It’s very challenging,” Carlson said. “A county jail our size is not set up to house people by themselves. We’re really not set up for mental health subjects.”