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State Jail Rehab Allegedly Tried to Pass Mentally Ill Inmates as Addicts

Photo: Mary Tuma, License: N/A

Mary Tuma

Ex-counselors with a substance abuse program at Dominguez State Jail claim inmates went untreated for mental illness

“I think we can all agree that the jails have become a dumping ground for the mentally ill,” said Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the LBJ School at UT-Austin, during a recent panel discussion on mental health and criminal justice at The University of Texas San Antonio. “And it’s just about as inappropriate of a place for them as can be.”

A 2011 report presented to the Bexar County Commissioners Court found indigent mentally ill patients in the County’s public and private hospitals are rising, the Current previously reported. With more patients in need of charity care to cover costs, hospitals experience financial strain. To offset losses, private hospitals may turn away these patients, relegating them to state hospitals or jails and worsening the problem.

The inmates who have mental illness are part of the most vulnerable population and thus more subject to physical assault, less compliant with rules and more likely to end up in extreme isolation—conditions that may deteriorate or even create additional mental health problems, said Deitch.

Already overrun with mentally ill patients, many waiting for treatment, situations like the one former employees with Turning Point allege further distance inmates from the necessary remedies.

There is a high comorbidity, or correlation, between substance abuse and other mental illnesses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, however the organization emphatically promotes treating the appropriate patients with interventions for both their mental illness diagnosis and substance abuse issues. And the comorbidity statistics available show that, at most, half of the mentally ill population also has issues with substance abuse. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that “Treatment programs designed for people whose problems are primarily substance abuse are generally not recommended for people who also have a mental illness. These programs tend to be confrontive and coercive and most people with severe mental illnesses are too fragile to benefit from them.”

If, in fact, psychiatric numbers are being minimized or obfuscated, the consequences could be harmful, says Robin Thorner, supervising attorney with the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. Especially in a jail-like setting, where conditions are already difficult, mental symptoms would likely be exacerbated and pose a greater threat to the patients as well as their surroundings, said Thorner.

“When mental illness goes untreated, especially for someone who wants treatment, it can have really terrible effects on the individual as well as those around the individual,” she said.

Jones said during her time in the jail, inmates who exhibited clear mental illness, like undergoing active hallucinations, were prone to abuse and extorted for commissary by other inmates.

“We are supposed to be providing a therapeutic service for these guys, to help them make the changes they need so they don’t come back,” said Cantu. “There’s just no way we could have provided them with the actual treatment they needed.”

* VanHudson formerly worked at the Current before and after his employment with Turning Point.
He is no longer with the magazine.
**Pseudonym used to protect anonymity

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