Rural jails in Oregon struggle with mentally ill inmates

From the Oregonian, December 12, 2008

He was a boyish 40-year-old who was arrested July 4 after spinning a car around and around in a cemetery, then leading police on a high-speed chase.

At the 36-bed Union County Jail, he descended into madness, said Capt. Craig Ward, the county undersheriff.

During his two-month stay, the man screamed, sang at the top of his lungs, babbled, flooded his cell by clogging the toilet, smeared food and excrement on the walls and pounded a stainless-steel shower stall for hours on end. His antics kept other inmates awake and exhausted jailers working 12-hour shifts.

“Bedlam,” Ward said. “We had no way of stopping him.”

Capt. Craig Ward, the undersheriff who manages the Union County Jail, is ignored by a prisoner who's wrapped himself in a blanket.

Capt. Craig Ward, the undersheriff who manages the Union County Jail, is ignored by a prisoner who's wrapped himself in a blanket.

A problem that has long vexed big-city jails has arrived in small towns: County lockups throughout Oregon are being deluged with inmates suffering from mental illness. And like their larger counterparts, they’re ill-equipped to handle them.

Mentally ill inmates share one thing: criminal acts

The Union County Jail averages three or four mentally ill inmates a month, Ward said, with one or two typically in custody at any given time. August saw nine.

“We just can’t deal with it,” he said. “I’ve got two officers to keep the lid on 36 individuals back there. It is a tremendous drain on the staff.”

The problem traces to the early 1980s, when psychiatric hospitals nationwide began downsizing or closing with the idea that mentally ill people would be better served in community settings, said Paul Snider, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties. But then, as now, the nation was in a recession and the community resources were never built, he said.

Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, then Oregon’s primary adult psychiatric facility, closed in 1995. That “may have been the beginning of the avalanche,” said Eric Schmidt, spokesman for the Association of Oregon Counties in Salem.

“Those folks hit the bottom,” Snider said. “If nothing else got them, the jail would, and it is not appropriate.”

Now, said Lauri Stewart, Department of Human Services spokeswoman, “the criminal justice system has kind of become the default mental health system” — and that’s more expensive than early treatment.

State budget cuts in 2001-02 cost Oregon 1,000 mental health jobs and 1,000 alcohol/drug counseling and caseworker positions, said Morgan D. Cowling, policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties. Each handled 75 to 100 patients, she said.

Half the mental health positions have since been filled, but none of the others, she said.

More difficulties might loom. Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s recommended human services budget for 2009-11 reduces adult outpatient mental health services for non-Medicaid clients by 90 percent, Cowling said. It cuts the state alcohol and drug treatment budget by 82.8 percent and the community mental health budget by 17.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of county jail beds isn’t growing fast enough to keep up. In some cases, beds are disappearing; portions of county lockups in Josephine, Douglas and Lane counties have closed.

Ward, a 55-year-old former Wheeler County sheriff who worked as a Portland police officer for 18 years, said the situation is a tragedy in the making. Mentally ill inmates sometimes can’t tell jailers they’re ill, and the jail staff doesn’t have the medical training to recognize such problems.

“We are going to wind up with an in-custody death,” Ward said.

His jail has two segregation cells for inmates with disciplinary problems. They’re often occupied by mentally ill inmates, leaving no place for disorderly prisoners, he said.

Inmates suffering from mental illness can be a frightening presence in a rural jail. Last month, a combative 6-foot-4, 250-pound prisoner began acting out, and the other inmates took refuge in their cells, Ward said.

“They said, ‘We are scared of this guy. We are afraid he’s going to rape us,'” Ward said, adding that the jail staff had to use a Taser on the man when he refused to come out of a shower.

Patty Wentz, Human Services Department spokeswoman, said the answer isn’t to move people from one treatment bed to another.

“It’s more how do we keep the mentally ill from entering the criminal justice system,” she said. “The solution is to get early and local treatment.”

In the meantime, Ward said he needs changes to his jail. He wants to add a couple of isolation cells to separate mentally ill people from the rest of the inmates.