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Florida Officials Clash Over Mental Illness and Jails

November 16, 2006

Florida officials are being threatened by their own state judges with daily fines for failing to transfer severely mentally ill inmates from jails to state hospitals, the New York Times reports. (Opens new window; free sign-in required).

With few hospital beds available, the state has been "flouting" court orders since August.  One judge has warned that the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families could go to jail for contempt of court.

In the New York Times story, NAMI legal director Ron Honberg points out that the problem is not unique to Florida.

"This is a national problem, and it’s a direct reflection of the lack of adequate beds and coordination between the criminal justice and mental health systems."

Putting more mentally ill inmates in state hospitals also should not be the real goal.

"You have large numbers of people sent to state hospitals not for therapeutic purposes, but for purposes of making them competent to proceed to trial," Honberg said. "We’re not going to solve these problems until we invest adequate resources into services that work for people before they get to jail."

A  book published earlier this year, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, by Pete Earley, also provides a first-hand look at the Miami-Dade County Jail and the lack of community services. It follows the lives of individuals both in and out of jail and exposes the vicious circle that exists between the criminal justice and mental healthcare systems.

In Miami, an average of 25 to 40 acutely psychotic people live in a squalid psychiatric ward of the jail, the New York Times reports. Seventeen recently were waiting for state hospital beds. Other times, the number has been as high as 30. Some of the unit’s suicide watch cells — "dim, bare and designed for one inmate" — hold two or three inmates at a time, and that the inmates were kept in their cells 24 hours a day except to shower. None receive individual or group therapy.

Other Resources:

Learn more about the criminalization of individuals with mental illness.