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New Bedlam: Jails--Not Psychiatric Hospitals--Now Care for the Indigent Mentally Ill

NCJ Number
Jail Suicide/Mental Health Update Volume: 9 Issue: 1 Dated: Summer 1999 Pages: 12-17
Spencer P. M. Harrington
Date Published
6 pages
This article examines why so many mentally ill persons are ending up in jail, and profiles a model jail program for providing mental health services to such people.
By the late 1970's, every U.S. State had changed or enacted laws to restrict psychiatric hospitalization to those who are dangerous to themselves or others. Under these laws, indigents who had previously been confined in mental hospitals are now meant to live in the community and receive medication and counseling at public clinics called Community Mental Health Centers, which are staffed with Federal money. Under this set of policies, researchers found that some former mental hospital patients were slipping through cracks in the community mental health care system, ending up homeless, psychotic, and often arrested by police. Police encounters with the mentally ill can be frustrating and time consuming. Police often must decide whether to arrest, seek out a Community Mental Health Center during its hours of operation, or find a hospital emergency room. The latter two options may be unavailable because of limited space for police referrals, restrictive admission criteria, and a general reluctance to take on problem cases. Given that many mentally ill individuals end up in jail, the Alexandria Adult Detention Center (AADC) (Virginia) has developed a model program for such inmates. The AADC program is administered by the City of Alexandria Community Services Board, which also oversees mental health care in the city. Seven mental health workers oversee a psychiatric housing area in the jail, which holds 410 people. When inmates finish their time at the AADC, jail staff contact community care providers to ensure they are alerted.


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