Mentally Ill Inmates Are Dying A Slow, Agonizing Death In U.S. Jails

Imprisonment may be traumatic for everyone, but it is worse for the mentally ill. So when did jails become acceptable mental healthcare institutions?

An armed guard stands on a gun rail

Medical care for mentally ill inmates in the United States is a disaster. Jails and prisons are overrun by people battling one or more psychological disorders – in fact, there are 10 times more mentally ill Americans in correctional facilities than in state mental hospitals.

It does not take an intellectual to figure out that jails are not the right place for these individuals, most of who are arrested for minor misdemeanor charges. They spend months, even years, in detention awaiting proper mental healthcare treatment, which often ends up doing more harm than good to them.

Case in point: a 32-year-old recovering drug addict from Roseville, Michigan, died in the Macomb County Jail after authorities denied him the prescribed medication. David Stojcevski died in June 2015, but his case only came to light after a local news channel obtained the painful footage of the man’s last moments recently.

Stojcevski was serving a 30-day sentence for not paying a $772 parking ticket. The medical officers at the jail were informed that he required Xanax, Klonopin and Oxycodone when they booked him in, yet they never provided him any medication – even after he was found “twitching on the floor” and pleading “for necessary medical care and treatment.”

His family has filed a lawsuit against the county for his wrongful death and the FBI announced on Tuesday it opened a review of the investigation.

The thing is, the act of being in jail is traumatic even for people who do not suffer from mental illness. Being forcibly removed from one's family, stripped of any independence, and locked in a controlled and violent environment designed to punish is physically, emotionally and mentally distressing.

Read More: Here's Why The U.S. Criminal Justice System Needs To Be Reformed

San Quentin State Prison

Apart from the under- and over-medication, jails and prisons rely on solitary confinement for suicide prevention, and lack mental health training for the officials. Moreover, inmates are warehoused in their cells for weeks and months – in some rare cases, even for years – before they get a chance to see an expert who then deems them either fit or unfit for the trial.

The recent case of Virginia resident Jamycheal Mitchell is no different from that.

The 24-year-old was suffering from schizophrenia, and had reportedly stopped taking medication. The police arrested him for stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake (totaling $5.05) from a 7-Eleven.

Although his crime was not that serious, he paid the price with his life.

A judge had ordered him to a state psychiatric hospital to get help, but like an increasing number of the mentally ill, he sat in jail for months as he waited for a bed to open. He died on Aug. 19 in his cell, after he lost 36 pounds and, according to the jail authorities, refused food and medication.

Research shows that people with mental illness do not improve when they are behind bars. In fact, their condition often deteriorates in such circumstances, but somehow, jails have become a mental healthcare institution over the past decade or so.

Authorities argue that they need more funds and better facilities to improve the care for the mentally ill, but what about the way these people are treated in detention?

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Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Stephen Lam

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