Prison aims to address the needs of mentally ill inmates

Prisons Aim to Address Mentally Ill Inmates

Prisoners with mental health problems have different needs than inmates without these issues, and therefore there’s a need for resources in jails that address these unique requirements. Some prisons across the U.S. have been stepping up to provide mental health services and making sure inmates get the treatment they need. For example, The Wichita Eagle, a Kansas news source, recently reported that the Sedgwick County Jail is planning to open a unit that has been designed to exclusively help prisoners who have mental health issues.

While it is officially called the mental health management unit, it is more commonly known as the mental health “pod.” Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Sharon Willits explained that the pod should be able to hold 48 inmates at a time. Unfortunately, this means that there will likely be a waiting list for this unit, due to the high number of mentally ill inmates. The goal of this pod is not for long-term housing but rather to stabilize inmates so that they can eventually be moved back into the general population. However, Willits recognized that some inmates may never be stable enough to return to the general population.

Keeping a close eye
One of the major things that sets the mental health pod apart from the rest of the jail is that it will be manned by two deputies at all times, rather than one. This allows one person to circulate throughout the pod to ensure inmates are safe, while the other can oversee from a booth. Furthermore, these deputies are to receive special training on how to work with mentally ill prisoners. While the majority of cells in the unit will only have one bed, one of the cells in both the male and female sections of the pod will have two beds to accommodate prisoners who fair better when they are not alone.

There are two floors to the pod, but to ensure that suicidal inmates cannot jump off the higher floor and injure themselves, there will be a fence installed. Inmates in this special housing will have access to regular group therapy sessions as part of the plan to help improve their well-being and eventually transfer them back to normal prison life.

The danger of ignoring the problem
While the Sedgwick County Jail is an example of what prisons can do to help their mentally ill inmates, it’s important to note what can happen when a jail doesn’t address the needs of inmates with mental illness.

The State, a South Carolina news source, recently reported that a state judge has ruled the treatment given to seriously mentally ill inmates in South Carolina prisons so poor that it is actually unconstitutional.

While the South Carolina Department of Corrections has said that it intends to appeal this decision by Judge Michael Baxley, the words in his 45-page order strongly hold the department responsible for the unfortunate outcomes of many inmates.

“Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care,” wrote Baxley​. “Hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”

The judge added that in his 14 years in his position, he has never seen a case that was so troubling. In response, he has given the South Carolina Department of Corrections 180 days to come up with a plan that will fix this situation. He was very vocal about the fact that he hopes the department would not appeal his ruling, which does not appear to be the case.

“We are now eight years into this litigation. Rather than accept the obvious at some point and come forward in a meaningful way to try and improve its mental healthy system. Defendants have fought this case tooth and nail – on the facts, on the law, on the constitutional issues,” Baxley wrote.

The news source explained that of the estimated 22,000 inmates in South Carolina prisons, about 3,500 have serious mental illnesses. It is important for these individuals to get the treatment they need.


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