A state survey shows that nearly 9 percent of inmates in Oregon's 30 county-run jails are persons with serious mental illnesses who would benefit from diversion to other types of programs.
"By and large, the survey found that many of these people have committed lesser crimes and don't pose significant risk to the public," said Bob Nikkel, mental health and addictions administrator in the Oregon Department of Human Services. "Most would benefit from treatment and do not belong in jail."
Jails reporting that 20 percent or more of inmates were seriously mentally ill were those in Marion, Columbia, Umatilla, Union, Jackson and Josephine counties.
The survey, prompted by a recommendation of the Governor's Task Force on Mental Health, was conducted with cooperation from members of the Oregon Jail Managers Association. All 30 jails responded to the survey.
The jails reported that the typical cost for an inmate with mental illness was a third greater than that for other inmates, or about $100 a day compared with less than $76, as a result of more prescription drugs, staff time and medical care.
Nikkel said jail managers reported that inmates with serious mental illness, defined as schizophrenia, severe depression and bipolar or manic-depressive disorder, have more trouble following simple rules, require more staff supervision, spend more time in isolation cells and require more medical attention than other inmates. On any given day, the jails house about 6,100 inmates, of whom about 500 experience serious mental illness.
"It's troubling that jail managers told us inmates who are mentally ill go to jail more often, spend more time in jail for the same crimes and are more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted than other inmates," Nikkel said. "Nearly half the jails reported that these inmates receive no community mental health services while behind bars."
Nikkel said the findings led to these and other recommendations:
• Create diversion programs that will get people with mental illness arrested for minor misdemeanors into treatment rather than being booked into jail.
• Establish more mental-health treatment courts such as those in Clackamas, Lane and Yamhill counties.
• Deliver training for jail personnel through the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, county mental health programs, the state Department of Human Services or a combination. Although all but two of the jail managers said staff members were trained in "basic mental health issues," fewer than 20 were trained in "the nature of serious mental illness" or in how to handle a psychiatric emergency.
• Establish a voluntary database where police and jail personnel could obtain mental-health treatment information for people who are arrested or jailed.
• Make arrangements for local jails to prescribe and purchase in bulk modern psychiatric medications.
• Provide mental health appointments, prescriptions and medications to inmates upon release.
• Improve re-entry resources for released inmates such as more housing, community treatment and professional follow-up.
The new survey findings come as the state is considering how to replace Oregon State Hospital and strengthen the community mental health system.