Featured Stories

Feds: Half of jail inmates are mentally ill

Results of U.S. study differs from those of earlier Oregon study

A recently released federal study of state and county inmates found a much higher percent suffering from mental illness than was reported by an Oregon study released one month earlier.

The federal study was released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics on Sept. 6. It found that at midyear 2005, more than half of all federal, state and local inmates had mental health problems.

The state study was released by the Oregon Department of Human Services on July 31. It only covered county jail inmates and found that nearly 9 percent of them had serious mental illnesses.

According to the Oregon report, the figure for Multnomah County was less - just around 4 percent. The federal study does not include any figures for individual county jails.

Despite the difference in the numbers, Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito said both studies prove the county needs to do more to diagnose and help mentally ill inmates.

'The societal and dollar cost of jailing the mentally ill is staggering, when what is really called for are treatment programs,' said Naito, who has made improving the county's mental health system one of her top priorities. 'It is inappropriate to punish people for being mentally ill. It's time to put an end to this national disgrace.'

Oregon mental health officials said the higher figures in the federal study are the result of how its information was gathered. The federal study was compiled by asking inmates whether they had a variety of symptoms ranging from hallucinations to depression to thoughts of revenge.

'While it appears scientific, there are several major methodological issues [with the study] that make the results very controversial,' said Robert Nikkel, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Human Services. 'One is that it is based on self report and the definition of mental health problem is extremely broad. So what you get is prisoners saying what they want to about a great variety of symptoms.'

In contrast, the Oregon study defined mental illness as clinically diagnosed episodes of schizophrenia, severe depression and bipolar or manic-depressive disorder. Nikkel said even those inmates rarely receive appropriate treatment while incarcerated, however.

'Nearly half the jails reported that these inmates receive no community mental health services while behind bars,' he said.

Naito said both reports show that mental health services need to be increased for inmates, including the creation of programs that offer alternatives to incarceration.

'We must develop an effective strategy to deal with all inmates with mental health problems,' she said.