Rising numbers of mentally ill prisoners require additional resources

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    Rising numbers of inmates with mental illnesses mean correctional facilities are struggling to find resources and ways to deal with behavioral problems.

    Take Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia for example. In some ways, it looks more like a mental health treatment center than a jail.

    “The majority of the women are medicated for mental health issues,” said Bruce Herdman, the chief of medical operations at the facility. Thirteen percent of inmates have severe mental illnesses, and Riverside has its own psychiatric hospital with more than 60 beds.

    About 35 percent of inmates receive mental health services.

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    “Injury prevention is a big issue with this population,” said Herdman. “The rates of self injury and suicide are much higher, so we spend an awful lot of time, making sure people don’t hurt themselves.”

    Cook County Jail in Chicago recently put a psychologist in charge of its entire operation.

    Nneka Jones Tapia said that background helps her and her staff provide what many prisoners really need.

    “We have art therapy, we have talk therapy, group therapy, you name it, we’ve got it,” she said.

    Tapia said she looks at the inmates as people with complicated backgrounds, who have often experienced a lot of trauma in their lives and need a lot of help to change their behaviors. The staff at Cook County is trained in crisis intervention, to help de-escalate situations.

    Nationally, there’s a lot of conversation about mental illness in prison right now, but not enough action.

    “We have to look at what resources we have on the front end to try to minimize the number of people who are coming into correctional institutions on the back end,” Tapia said.

    Herdman agreed. A mentally ill defendant arrested for something minor like public urination could end up at his facility for months, awaiting a court date.

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