State treating mentally ill like criminals

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

In Scott County, our jail is just like most any other jail in Mississippi &045; it’s overcrowded and hemorrhaging from high costs, especially those related to the medical treatment of inmates.

And just like most any other jail in Mississippi, the Scott County jail is one of the only resorts for housing mentally ill patients who have no other place to go.

The fact that we treat our mentally ill persons like common criminals despite the irrefutable fact that they have done nothing wrong has been hashed and rehashed here and in other written forums all across the state. Still, it seems to do no good. A few people care, but not enough. The issue is barely on the radar screen of most legislators. It seems to garnish just enough attention for some lip service but not enough to have serious talks about it.

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Sen. Billy Thames, D-Mize, is one of the few legislators who passionately fights for help for our mentally ill. He helped pass a bill several years ago that set up seven regional mental health facilities that would serve as an emergency room of sorts for mentally ill persons. These facilities are where mentally ill persons would be sent instead of being locked up like a two-bit, punk thug, a place where they could receive proper medical treatment at a cost to the state and not to the overburdened local governments.

All of that is irrelevant, however. The health care battle continues to center around Medicaid, and little else seems to pique enough curiosity. The state has watched Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, rail against Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and the state Senate as a whole for their perceived attack on Medicaid.

Thankfully, Holland is one of our state’s staunchest supporters of the program. Without a lawmaker of his clout and passion protecting Medicaid, the system most likely would run amuck far more than it already has.

That said, why are Holland and others not brewing with outrage over locking up mentally ill persons just like we do the crack head down the street? Surely this is not the reason, but one must wonder whether the perception is that poor people still vote but crazies do not. Is that it?

Guess again. Of the mental health extended care facilities &045; not the hospitals &045; we have in the state, most of them bus their residents to the polls just like nursing homes or just like churches. Mentally ill persons vote as well.

Look at the district attorney for Madison and Rankin counties. David Clark is open about his mental illness. Few people look past the mental illness to see that just like someone with any number of other diseases, Mr. Clark takes medicine that makes him a normally functioning person living a productive life.

But you know what? If he was to get sick, and he had no where to go, Mr. Clark would end up in jail as well, and this time it would not be on some bogus DUI charge but because our state locks up mentally ill people in the same jails where we house pot heads, dope dealers, murderers, rapists and belligerent old town drunks.

Don’t believe me? Take Scott County for example. In 2003, 49 people spent a combined 361 days in the county jail before the chancery court released them or they were transferred to a health care facility. Do the math. That averages out to more than seven days in prison per person. Most crack fiends, town drunks, rapists and the rest of the sorted lot bail out in less time.

To fund the seven facilities the Legislature built a couple of years ago would cost $17 million to the state. In a financial crunch, that’s a lot of money. Nonetheless, we have to weigh the welfare of our citizens and their basic human right to medical care &045; not insurance &045; but medical care against the cost.

Every year the Legislature does not fund these facilities is another year lawmakers regulate our mentally ill population to the same stature as a common crook.

Sam R. Hall

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