published Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Program helps mentally ill in jail


by Monica Mercer
Audio clip

Ardena Garth

Mental illness plagues jail and prison populations nationwide at significantly higher rates than it does the general population, statistics show.

But, Hamilton County Public Defender's office personnel agree, those suffering from mental illness usually spend two to five times longer in jail and are the inmates least likely to receive the kind of care needed to keep them from being incarcerated again.

Chuck Courtright, the criminal justice mental health liaison for Hamilton County who counsels mentally ill inmates at the jail here, said there is a high rate of recidivism.

"People with mental illness tend to come back," he said.

Thirty to 40 percent of the inmates in any given month at the Hamilton County Jail have mental health problems, he said.

The problem has prompted the public defender's office to spearhead the Bridge Project, a local program aimed at stopping the "revolving door of the mentally ill going in and out of jail without accessing long-term treatment."

The program is modeled on a similar one in Shelby County, Tenn., that has operated successfully for 10 years. Participants here must have a significant mental health disease such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to qualify for the 120-day program. Case managers monitor patients' medication and therapy sessions and link them to the various mental health programs available locally.

A man who threatened to kill Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams in late February became the first participant in the program this past week after an evaluation revealed that Jason Vice's mental illness was severe enough to warrant intensive treatment. He had called Mr. Adams' residence three times, promising to kill him and his wife before burning their house down.

Once Mr. Vice completes the program his case will be evaluated, and he might not have to serve jail time, prosecutors said.

Public defender Ardena Garth said working with mentally ill inmates and getting them the help they need has been a "definite challenge."

The challenge often comes when it is time to discuss their cases, she said. If mentally ill people are not on medication and are unstable, it can be very difficult to help them understand their basic rights as well as the charges pending against them, she said.

Helping mentally ill people become stable and making the connections for them in the community will be the Bridge Project's biggest impact, said assistant public defender Anna Protano-Biggs, who helped develop the program.

"We saw the gaps between the criminal justice system and the mental health system (before we developed the Bridge Project)," Ms. Protano-Biggs said. "But all of the support services are there. We just need to provide that link."

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