State leader says criminal justice system fails mentally ill

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County jail – a revolving door for many small-time offenders across the nation.  The Blair County Prison is no exception.
 
“Locking somebody up like an animal is not gonna keep them from coming back to jail,” said a former inmate of the Blair County Prison. “It’s not teaching them anything. It’s actually making them bitter. There’s fights between the inmates because of the frustration, and I just see where they have no rehabilitation program.”
 
“The whole process is failing us because people up there just don’t understand it,” said Franklin County Commissioner Robert Thomas.
 
Thomas is part of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s Behavioral Health Task Force.  It was formed to create a guide for counties seeking alternatives to incarcerating mentally ill and substance abusing offenders. 
 
He said the recidivism we see comes down to two things: drugs and mental health.
 
“If people really understood what this ugly issue is they would be screaming from the highest mountain top that we need to fix it,” Thomas said. “We have serious, serious societal problems and a lot of it is led by drugs.’
 
Resources in every jail are different.  The former inmate said there is virtually no mental health help. 
 
“Well, I’ve never physically seen a mental health doctor,” the inmate said.  “You see them by TV screen. All they do is ask you what your issues are, prescribe you some medication to knock you out.  Basically everybody’s on the same medication out there.”
 
The CCAP found as much as 20% of people in corrections facilities express some level of mental illness.  Roughly about 10% to 15% have serious mental illness. 
 
“Sometimes people think ‘Oh, it’s just the poor. It’s in the inner city,'” Thomas said. “Forget that! It’s not true. It could be any one of us. It could be anybody, and it’s reaching all of society.”
 
Thomas said funding to provide proper resources is grossly inadequate, and the solution should not be resorting to locking everybody up.
 
He said Pennsylvania needs more mental health treatment facilities. The few that do exist have year-long wait lists.
 
“It’s a shame that I seen so many young girls come in there addicted to heroin and opiates and bath salts,” the former inmate said. “It’s just killing our kids and they’re not getting the proper help or treatment for them to go back out in society and rehabilitate themselves.  They’re just going back out and coming back in. I’ve seen at least five to six people leave and come back three or four times in just the time I was there.”
 
“I’ve seen a lot of lives wasted,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen people that are chronically unemployed because they can’t get a job because they have a record or they have occasional setbacks with heroin or whatever. It really costs society greatly when we have this issue.”
 
Thomas said there is no easy answer, but fixing the problem starts with more education, more treatment capability, and more support. 
 
From the general public to our legislators, Thomas said everyone needs to care.
 
“It is our sons and daughters. It’s our best friends,” he said, “and whether it’s the mentally ill that we may be talking about, they are people, too. The appropriate care may not necessarily be incarceration.”
 
A corrections officer with the jail told WTAJ the administration is aware of all of this.  The warden declined to comment. 
 

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