Jailing the Mentally Ill Doesn’t Help Anyone

Mens Central Jail Photo by Mark Ibirby

Does this look like a good place to send people who are mentally ill?  Photo by Mark Ibirby.

Here’s some disturbing info from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)….

“In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.”

Throwing mentally ill people in jail doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help the person who’s stuck behind bars, because getting locked up just adds one more layer of trauma, and will most likely prevent the person from getting the help they need. And it isn’t good for society at large, because instead of hooking mentally ill people up with treatment that will help them get back on their feet, it makes it more difficult for them to find employment and housing, meaning they’re more likely to end up homeless.

Over the past several years there’s been a push to rethink the way we care for people dealing with mental health issues. Last week the LA Board of Supervisors approved a plan to tear down the Men’s Central Jail and build a mental health care facility instead. At first glance, this looks like progress, but local activists fear the plan may only offer cosmetic changes. For more details, read the story in the LA Times.

LA County Will Replace Men’s Central Jail with Mental Health Hospital for Inmates

At this point it’s hard to say how this will all play out. The plan approved by the Supervisors could be a step in the right direction, or it could be a way to defer meaningful action that would lead to real progress. But however this plays out, we should all be thinking about how we can push for change in this area. If you’ve lived in LA for any time at all, you’ve seen mentally ill people wandering the street. Many of these people have spent time in jail, and were released with little or no support to help them transition back into society. If we don’t change the way the system operates, we’re certain to see the number of mentally ill homeless increase.

I’ll leave you with another quote from NAMI.

“Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.”

No Need to Get the Public Involved

Twin Towers Correctional Facility near Downtown LA

Twin Towers Correctional Facility near Downtown LA

Last week the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the construction of two new jails, at a combined cost of more than $1 billion. By itself, this probably doesn’t seem too alarming, since the County has been facing severe criticism over the conditions in its jails for years. But in their rush to approve these projects, the Supervisors forgot one little detail. Somehow they neglected to let the public know that this item was coming up for a vote.

These projects have been under consideration for a while, and the need to fix this problem is very real. But the agenda posted before the meeting says absolutely nothing about taking action on this issue. The agenda did mention that a proposal to transfer mentally ill prisoners to a different facility was going to be discussed, and they’re claiming that the vote to approve the jails was related business. What a joke. The public was completely bypassed. There was no serious debate. The three alternatives considered were not properly analyzed. This is a travesty. And aside from being a travesty, it’s totally illegal. The Brown Act requires elected representatives to give adequate notice for any item they plan to take action on.

The Board has had transparency problems before. Back in 2011 it held a secret meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to discuss the transfer of mentally ill prisoners, which triggered a lawsuit by Californians Aware. Last year the Board refused to turn over records detailing payments to private lawyers who had defended the Sheriff’s Department in excessive force cases.

But the County isn’t alone in its efforts to shut the public out. The sad fact is, this kind of thing is common practice for our elected officials and government agencies. The City of LA has a less than stellar record when it comes to public participation. City agencies hold public meetings, declaring that they want to hear from the citizens, but often these meetings are so poorly publicized that nobody knows about them. They scheduled a series of five open forums on re:code LA, a massive overhaul of the City’s zoning code. I did receive notice of the meetings. Unfortunately it didn’t arrive until the first three had already taken place. I wasn’t able to attend the last two. I still remember the meeting held by the Housing and Community Investment Department a while ago in Pacoima. The purpose of the meeting was supposedly to get input from the community on how to use millions of dollars in federal funding. Only about 20 people showed up, and they were all either city employees or reps for non-profits. Why were there no citizens from the communities that might benefit from the funding? It came out during the meeting that the HCID had neglected to contact local groups within these communities in order to help publicize the event. They hadn’t even distributed flyers within the areas under discussion.

It happens at the regional level, too. Earlier this year the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) announced a series of open houses to get comment on their Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS). I bet a lot of people would’ve liked to attend. Unfortunately, all but one of the meetings were scheduled during working hours, meaning anybody with a job would have to take time off to be there. On top of that, of the six open houses planned, none of them were located in the City of LA. In other words, there wasn’t going to be a single meeting within the boundaries of the largest city that SCAG serves. SCAG took some heat for this, and they did end up scheduling three more meetings. But why do we have to put the screws on just to have our voices heard?

This is really maddening. These people are supposed to be serving us. Instead, they’re routinely shutting the public out of discussion on important issues. And with the Board of Supervisors voting to spend $1 billion without even putting the item on the agenda, we seem to be hitting a new low.

If you want to contact your Supervisor to let them know how you feel about this, here’s the link.

Board of Supervisors