Even though they face no criminal charges, seriously mentally ill people are jailed in nearly every state, says a study by two advocacy groups. The practice is legal in only 17 states.
All but five states have at least a small percentage of jails that house the mentally ill who have not been charged, the Ralph Nader organization Public Citizen and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said Wednesday."Our jails are once again becoming surrogate mental hospitals," said Laurie Flynn, executive director of the alliance.
The organizations said more than 7 percent of the 265,881 people jailed on an average day in 1991 had severe mental disorders. The report said the mentally ill made up 6.8 percent of jail prisoners in Utah.
The organizations sent questionnaires to all 3,353 county and city jails and received 1,391 usable responses - a rate of 41.5 percent. They said these jails included more than 62 percent of the jail population.
It said seriously mentally ill people were being held without charges in jails of all states except New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut.
In the other states, the percentage of jails with such prisoners ranged from 6.7 percent in Maryland to 81.1 percent in Kentucky. The figure for Utah was 35.7 percent.
The Kentucky Department for Mental Health and Mental Retardation recommended in 1989 that the mentally ill be sent to specialized treatment facilities for evaluation instead of being jailed without criminal charges.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the department, said the Legislature has not acted on the recommendation, primarily because of the estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2 million. The lawmakers have placed a 48-hour limit on the time a mentally ill person can be held on a warrantless arrest.
The author of the survey, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist with Public Citizen, said the "worst" jail he found was in Flathead County, Mont.
The Montana Legislature has changed the law, effective next July 1, so that mentally ill people not charged with crimes can no longer be held in jail.
"Despite such stirrings, not much is really very different in Flathead County," wrote Torrey. "The main inpatient facility for acutely ill psychiatric patients continues to be the `soft cell' of the jail, a barren, padded room with a grate in the floor, serving as a toilet, and a TV monitor by which the person can be constantly observed."
He said 65 mentally ill individuals were booked into the Flathead County Detention Center in 1991 without any charges against them, and 17 others were booked on misdemeanor charges such as trespassing, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief.