For mentally ill inmates: Criminal acts are in common

From the Oregonian, December 12 2008

In Oregon’s small county jails, prisoners suffering from mental illness come in all shapes and sizes.

They include men and women, some from the local area and others from out of state. A few are homeless, but most have a place to go when they leave jail, said Capt. Craig Ward, the Union County undersheriff who runs the jail.

“I remember one who was 19, and we’ve had them well up in their 60s,” he said.

Some have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Others “abused hard drugs so often and so long, their brains are fried,” Ward said. About 20 to 25 percent agree to take their medication in jail and level out before being released, he said, and the jail can’t force those who refuse treatment.

The only thing they all have in common is they have run afoul of the criminal justice system, Ward said. To get into his lockup, they have to commit a Class A misdemeanor or felony.

“They are in jail not because they are insane but because they broke the law,” he said.

As inmates, they’re out of the public’s sight and mind. But practically all will be back on the street, regardless of whether their illness has been addressed, he said.

Mark Royal of Pendleton, who oversees a 30-bed minimum-security lockup for Umatilla County Community Corrections, says creating small, secure residential facilities in communities could be one answer.

His facility doesn’t accept people with mental illness; they go to Umatilla County Jail, which has space for 240 inmates but is funded to house 135.

“That’s the reality of the budget,” he said.

The idea of small-scale facilities is popular among mental health professionals, but the public can react with hostility.

Last summer, a proposal to build a locked, eight-bed residential treatment center for mentally ill sex offenders near Fossil in Wheeler County triggered strong opposition — leading to the recall of District Attorney Tom Cutsforth and the resignation of Sheriff Dan Rouse.

Wheeler County is the state’s least populous. Cutsforth had been the district attorney for 18 years, while Rouse was sheriff for 14 years. Because of their law enforcement jobs, both were appointed to the board of Morrow-Wheeler Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that received a $1.06 million grant from the Oregon Department of Human Services to develop a treatment facility for civilly committed mentally ill sex offenders.

The recall guaranteed that the facility won’t be built in Fossil.

State officials still plan several such facilities elsewhere in the state, said Lauri Stewart and Patty Wentz, both of the Oregon Department of Human Services.