There’s been a great deal of discussion about mental health in the U.S. this past year. 2013 saw a rash of shooting sprees, and those, paired with the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the mental health provisions within it, had many politicians and voters alike talking about the mental well-being of people in the U.S. One group of individuals in particular who should have readily available access to mental health care are those currently serving time in America’s prisons. Connecting prison doctors to outside mental health providers allows them to work together to make sure prisoners are getting the treatment they need – but this may require more funding for America’s prisons.
Recently, the Bangor Daily News, a Maine news source, published an article by Glenn Ross, who’s the sheriff of Penobscot County. He explained that for the past 10 years, he’s been advocating for more resources for the mentally ill, particularly those who are incarcerated. Ross said that since 2002, five prisoners in Penobscot County Jail have committed suicide, and more than 80 suicide attempts have been averted. He explained that despite the clear need for mental health services, the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor has been downsized and the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta has a long waiting list.
Ross explained that all of this inspired him to call for change, which he’s now seeing in the number of people who are supporting the passage of LD 1515, a law designed to increase the availability of mental health services to prison inmates.
“[The bill] will provide access to 32 mental health beds in a secure perimeter for both the state prison and county jail systems.Do you remember the 2011 escape from Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center by William Hall, who was accused of murder? Hall was denied access to Riverview Psychiatric Center due to the lack of capacity. Therefore he was sent to Dorothea Dix. Do you recall the tremendous public concern when he escaped? Today, under LD 1515, that inmate would have been treated in a more secure environment at the Department of Corrections’ intensive mental health unit in Warren,” Ross wrote for the news source.
Recognizing the problem
While Ross is happy with the decision to expand mental health resources to prisoners, he doesn’t think this one piece of legislature will be enough. According to Ross, the whole state needs a better mental health system – one that will help all residents get the treatment they need.
Maine isn’t the only state working to improve the mental health of its inmates. The Oregon Statesman Journal recently reported that the state’s prisons have become the largest mental health care providers in Oregon. The news source explained than nearly half of the 14,700 people incarcerated in Oregon have a mental health issue, and there’s not enough room for all of them in the Oregon State Hospital. Furthermore, there’s no prison for people who are considered criminally insane in Oregon, and many of the other prisons aren’t equipped to treat people with serious mental health issues.
The news source profiled Jana Russell, who’s the head of Behavioral Health Services for the Oregon Department of Corrections. Russell explained that back in 2001, she saw an ad for someone to work with women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution. She was inspired to help because her own daughter had struggled with addiction and ended up in jail. While her daughter was there, she called Russell and said that there were so many women in the facility that needed mental health care but weren’t receiving it.
Russell said that before she began working with incarcerated mentally ill individuals, she had no idea how serious the issue was. Russell paired up with Capt. Elizabeth LaCarney, an officer with the prison’s security staff, who started the Delta housing unit which is meant to provide dedicated treatment to inmates who have a mental illness.
Units like this are particularly important, since the news source explained how difficult life in prison can be for people who are mentally ill.
Software is key
To help manage mental healthcare, it’s important for prison medical staff to have the right tools in place, such as behavioral health electronic health records. With these systems, prison medical staff will be able to share any necessary patient information with other providers who can help them diagnose and properly treat inmates who may have a serious mental health issue. According to the National Institute of Corrections, in 2006, there were an estimated 705,600 mentally ill adults in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. These numbers highlight the need for technology that can help these individuals get the proper care and medications they need to improve their mental health.