Virginia government officials aim to improve prison mental health services

Virginia Aims to Improve Prison Mental Health

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aims to improve access to mental health services across the country. This has led government officials in many states to debate the best ways to improve mental health systems in their areas. For many of these states, these discussions have begun to involve local prisons, as more people call for improved mental health treatment options for incarcerated individuals.

For example, the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported that Virginia politicians have been debating what changes need to be made in the state to ensure that prisoners get the mental health care they need.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, spoke before the Senate Education and Health Subcommittee on Mental Health recently, saying that it’s time for the state of Virginia to take proper ownership of the mental health problems it’s facing. He emphasized that the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals in Virginia has led to “the reinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in jails and prisons.” The Times-Dispatch added that a recent resolution proposed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, calls for a study to be conducted regarding the treatment of people with mental health problems in the state’s jails.

Howell also called for prison alternatives for people who may be better served by going into mental health treatment facilities rather than jail.

“We need alternatives to people with mental illness going into jail in the first place,” Howell said, quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Also, how do we treat people who are truly sick but are also dangerous?”

Problems with transitioning back to community life
The Senate Rules Committee recently heard a presentation by the state inspector general, which found that insufficient treatment of incarcerated individuals with mental health problems may be contributing to inmates having problems transitioning back into their communities and getting the care they need.

The transition from incarceration to community living, from inmate to citizen, from being an offender to living a law abiding life – these are some of the most challenging transitions faced by individual today. But when the person making this transition has an intellectual disability or a serious mental illness, the challenges are multiplied exponentially.

Because of this, it’s important for prisoners with mental health issues to be identified and treated properly to help make the transition go smoothly. Officials in Virginia have also recognized this need, and are calling for there to be an increase in state funding to help see it filled.

For example, Inspector General Michael Morehart called for an initial state investment of $10.3 million to help mentally ill prisoners transitioning from prison life back to into their communities get the treatment they need.

WTOP, another Virginia news source, spoke to Virginia Beach jail sheriff Ken Stolle, who said that he believes it is impossible to talk about mental health without taking a close look at prisons.

“When you figure that almost 20 percent of my inmates are mentally ill, there’s some significant problem there,” Stolle told the news source.

He added that he does not believe that this is a problem isolated to Virginia. Rather, he feels as though jails have become the last resort for providers of mental health treatment in the U.S.

Furthermore, Stolle said that while he used to feel as though it was a bad thing to have so many mentally ill individuals in prison, he has changed his mind.

“I think it’s probably a good thing because we’re able to identify who the people are and identify the services they need,” Stolle told WTOP.

The sheriff called for the state to do more to not only make sure that inmates get mental health services, but that they can continue them once they are released from jail.

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