Coloradans with Mental Illnesses ‘Warehoused’ in Jails, Prisons

As a shortage of funding has depleted options for those in need of treatment for mental illnesses, there’s still one place that can’t say no: Jail.

Inpatient psychiatric beds have dwindled to 1,093 for the state’s entire population, according to state human services data, a decrease of 20 percent from five years ago. People with mental illnesses are more than five times as likely to wind up in jail or prison, according to a new series on mental health in Colorado by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News.

An inmate makes a phone call in Unit 4C of the Pueblo County, Colo., jail on April 4, 2014 during his single hour of time out of his cell each day. Inmates with mental illnesses are often placed under administrative segregation in 4C and other parts of the jail where they are kept isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day and their only human contact is with the guards.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

An inmate makes a phone call in Unit 4C of the Pueblo County, Colo., jail on April 4, 2014 during his single hour of time out of his cell each day. Inmates with mental illnesses are often placed under administrative segregation in 4C and other parts of the jail where they are kept isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day and their only human contact is with the guards.

“Years ago we deinstitutionalized mental health treatment,” says Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “People felt it was shameful that we had people in custody or locked up in mental health facilities. Now, instead, we lock them up in jail.”

The burden on jails is growing. A 1992 jail survey found that 11 percent of Colorado inmates had a serious mental illness, according to research by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. This year, 10 county jails surveyed by I-News reported that, on average in 2013, 18 percent of their inmates were mentally ill.

Sheriffs say that the trend is noticeable from year to year. At the Douglas County jail, for example, the number of mentally ill inmates has grown 10 percent in the past three years, even as the general daily population has dropped 25 percent.

Once they’re in, inmates with behavioral health problems have more trouble getting out. The seven metro Denver counties in 2008 found that mentally ill inmates stayed an average of five times longer than other inmates. In Pueblo, an inmate detained for a misdemeanor stays an average of 28 days; mentally ill inmates jailed for similar offenses stay between 171 and 180 days.

“Jails and prisons have become the warehouses for people who aren’t getting treated elsewhere,” says Attila Denes, a captain at the Douglas County jail. “It’s among the most expensive and least humane” ways to provide care.

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