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Costly problem of growing number of mentally ill inmates

HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio (Jeff Hirsh) -- It may be the biggest and costliest problem people have never heard of and it's getting worse.

Jails are home to a huge number of inmates who are mentally ill.  Jails and prisons have become the last resort for those in need of treatment.  Some inmates are flat out evil and will end up in the state pen. Others, perhaps not so violent, are in jail again and again.

There are about 1,400 inmates in the Hamilton County Justice Center each day. 

Ernest Woods is pretty typical, "When you're growing up you want to get into everything, the dope, the beer and the drinking.  You can't get rid of none of that."
   
Another thing Woods deals with, along with 35 percent of the other inmates, close to 500 of them suffer from a mental illness.  Nationwide, a new study says there are more seriously mentally ill in jails and prisons than there are in mental hospitals.

Sheriff Jim Neil of Hamilton County said, "If we were to redesign this jail today, there would be more floors dedicated to special needs and fewer to traditional general housing."
    
Sheriff Neil says 75 percent of his inmates are special needs.  That includes the mentally ill and those with other medical problems.  There's a medical unit at the jail and a mental health section as well.  More medical staff means more cost which is picked up by the taxpayers.

Most of the mentally ill people know they are mentally ill.  Most mentally ill prisoners are picked up for relatively minor offenses, like disorderly conduct, being drunk or acting out irrationally.

Maj. Charmaine McGuffey, jail supervisor, said, "They understand that they need to be on medication. Most of them don't want to take those medications.  They need some type of help out in society."
    
The sheriff's office has increased training for staff, and is trying to link up with more public and private agencies to help the mentally ill once they are released. But there's a challenge there too, there's not enough mental health facilities to deal with such a large population. 

Despite what's going on inside the jail, the answer is really on the outside.  There is a cost to society of providing treatment, but there is also a cost of not providing it.  When people are let out of jail, an incarcerated situation, and there is no support for them to go to, those people are going to come right back.  And that revolving door is bad for everyone.



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