Recommendations on the Mentally Ill in County Jails


November 6
Women’s City Club

view the video of the event here

Last May, the LA County Board of Supervisors, including Michael Antonovich, voted (3 to 2) to move ahead with a $2 billion plan to tear down and rebuild the Men’s Central Jail, replacing it with a facility that would house 4,860 inmates, with about 3,200 beds reserved for the jail’s mentally ill population. The interest alone on the cost of the building would be $120 million a year. The board refused to wait to hear the findings of Jackie Lacey’s task force, “The Criminal Justice Mental Health Project,” which produced a “comprehensive diversion plan,” which was made public in mid-November.

According to Brittney Weissman, CEO of the LA County (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the decision to close state hospitals for the mentally ill, and funding cuts that forced many hospitals to reduce or do away with psychiatric units, have led to a huge increase of mentally ill people living on the streets, many of whom are often caught up in a revolving-door system that takes them from hospital to jail to the street and around again. This results in the LA County jail being the largest mental institution in the United States. In D.A. Lacey’s words, “The system is, simply put, unjust.” Even judges and lawyers know these people do not belong in jail, but neither do they have any alternatives. If there were adequately funded and effective treatment centers, many lives could be salvaged and a lot of taxpayer’s money would be saved.

Ms. Weissman also said that NAMI is working to train corrections officers in the techniques of crisis intervention (CIT) to learn how to safely de-escalate confrontations with inmates who are very ill. CIT should also be taught to the beat cops who are called to people’s homes and businesses and who sometimes end up killing mentally ill people who need to be in treatment.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the Southern California ACLU, participated in two studies of the conditions in the county jails for mentally ill inmates: one in 2008 and one in 2014. (See “The Way Forward: Diverting People with Mental Illness from Jails into Community-Based Treatment” on the ACLU website)

The conditions for mentally ill inmates are appalling. Further, the mentally ill inmates are frequent targets of abuse by the general population and even the corrections officers. They often do not receive medications, and they have difficulty figuring out the rules when they are ill, resulting in punishment and isolation. The conditions in jail often worsen their mental conditions.

The ACLU and NAMI, as well as other members of D.A. Lacey’s task force, believe a better answer is to treat these people for their illnesses while they live in supported housing or treatment facilities or even their homes, but our communities right now do not have the funding or the capacity to deal with thousands of mentally ill people—if they did, we might not see nearly so many homeless obviously ill people.

Christine Miranda shared her personal story of being dual-diagnosed with a mental illness and an addiction. She spent time in jails and prisons, experiences that only made her sicker. She feels she began to get better when she was able to live independently and slowly begin to take responsibility for her illness and her life. She now volunteers and works in many capacities advocating for mentally ill people.

For more information on NAMI, visit the San Gabriel Valley NAMI website.
The League urges you to write letters to the LA County Board of Supervisors, asking them to provide funding for appropriate treatment centers, improved diversion programs, and adequate housing for people who are sick and need help, not jail. You may also wish to push for a study by the county League so that there is a formal position on this topic.

—Martha Griffen