Our country continues to witness an increasing mental illness. Studies demonstrate growing percentages of depression, suicide ideation, substance abuse, and our own observations cannot deny the growing rates of homelessness. Inmate populations have swelled and research finds a direct correlation between the increasing mental health crisis in this country and increasing inmate populations.
Nationwide, around 64 percent of inmates held in county jail facilities have a mental illness. Any reasonable observation of the Orange County Jail population will lead to the conclusion that it is the largest mental health facility in the county. Indeed, the Orange County sheriff, Don Barnes, observed that the Orange County Jail has become just that, “by default.” Virtually none of those inmates will receive proper health treatment in jail. Rather than addressing Orange County Jail’s mental health crisis by hiring more trained mental health professionals to treat those before they end up on jail, the county is just adding more space to house the ever-increasing inmate population.
And when those inmates have a mental health crisis, it is often law enforcement, not mental health professionals, that “treats” the patient. Law enforcement has the ultimate authority on how to treat an inmate suffering from a mental illness or crisis. That authority can override doctors’ orders. As to the treatment of inmates in a mental health crisis, a recent article by a former Orange County jail inmate described jail protocol for inmates who attempt suicide. The inmate is punished, not treated. An inmate who attempts suicide is descended upon by guards and transferred to a cold cell (described as a walk-in refrigerator). The inmate is given only a stiff apron to put over their body (as any other article of clothing could be an instrument of suicide), which exposes much of the inmate’s body to the cold. The inmate is deprived of conversation and human contact, left alone and almost naked. The inmate subjected to these conditions will often recant their attempt and insist they are not suicidal in order to gain release from the “Suicidal” cell. This could hardly be called treatment.