We all want to live in a city where individuals have access to the robust community services they need to be healthy, and the housing and other public supports that provide a stable foundation for people to live their lives.
Our recently published investigative report found that people with severe mental illness are entering Multnomah County Detention Center — a place woefully unprepared to meet their needs — at an alarming rate. These individuals endure treatment and conditions that are traumatizing, dangerous and even life- threatening. People are then discharged back to city streets without adequate supports, often in worse condition.
Cycling people with mental illness through our jail doors while failing to meet their most basic health care needs inflicts incredible harm on human beings who are in urgent need of care. And it squanders precious public resources, while doing nothing to improve public safety or the livability of our community.
For an individual with mental illness, jail is the worst place in the world to be. Our investigation found that people with mental illness at the jail suffer physical injuries, face threats to their health due to inadequate medical response, and endure severe isolation in solitary confinement. In spite of the widespread understanding that solitary confinement harms people's health and exacerbates mental illness, detainees with mental illness at the jail rarely access fresh air or human contact. Even visits with mental health workers often occur through the food port of a cell.
The jail is under-resourced, understaffed, and under-trained to meet the behavioral health care needs of this influx of people in mental health crisis. Between 40 to 80 percent of people incarcerated in the jail have mental health concerns. Yet deputies working in the jail receive no mental health or crisis intervention training. With the only tools within their reach, deputies end up, in effect, punishing people for having a mental illness.
Gaps in community supports have resulted in more people in psychiatric crisis on city streets.
But rather than locking people with mental illness behind closed doors in our jails, we need to invest in upstream community resources, such as affordable housing, supported housing and mental health services.
What can we do to help create more stable communities? Ask your Multnomah County commissioner to support policies that: treat individuals with mental illness in the community; end solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness; strengthen supports for people with mental health issues who are in custody; create new protocol for responding to mental health- related behavior in jail; and improve oversight and accountability to prevent jail staff misconduct and remedy systemic race and disability disparities.
We need to step up our efforts to keep more individuals with mental illness out of jail by strengthening community services and supports. But we must also hold our jails accountable when they don't meet the needs of people with mental illness who end up in their custody.
Sarah Radcliffe is an attorney for Disability Rights Oregon; its report on conditions inside Multnomah County Detention Center can be found at https://droregon.org/