UTAH STATE PRISON — Some of their crimes make headlines, others are minor — but they all cost Utah taxpayers money. Rather than going to a treatment center, mentally ill criminals often end up at the Utah State Prison.

For someone who is mentally ill, prison doesn't do much if anything to improve his or her condition. Often, they are sent back out into the community to re-offend. Yet prisons and jails are now our country's largest mental institutions.

"By default, our jails and our prisons have become the mental health providers in our community," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Gill said legislative changes during the Reagan administration led to de-institutionalization nationwide. The idea was that the mentally ill would do better receiving treatment in community-based mental health care programs. But continuing budget cuts and lack of follow-through haven't allowed for such programs.

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, more than 50 percent of inmates in prisons across the country suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Gill's conservative estimate is that 20 percent of Utah's inmates are mentally ill.

The Olympus Facility at the Utah State Prison houses those mentally ill inmates.

"Major depressant disorders to paranoid schizophrenia, to bipolar disorders; those are the offenders that we see," says Dale Schipaanboord, a mental health administrator at The Olympus Facility.

The building was originally intended to hold female inmates. But because of demand and the inability to mix the mentally ill in with the general population, it's never been used for that.

"The inmates here are checked every 15 minutes. Why the frequency? Because of the nature of their conduct, and their behavior, and because of their unstable mental state," said Schipaanboord.

The 150 beds are always full, he said, and there's a waiting list. The inmates' crimes range from failure to pay child support to murder.

Even if an inmate's crime is minor, often times they keep re-offending while in prison because of their mental state. That extends their sentence, and some spend the rest of their lives at The Olympus Facility.

"We don't have the resources, as does the state hospital," said Schipaanboord. "They now move from a treatment environment to a prison environment. And even though we attempt to do the same thing that the state hospital does, simply because of the environment, it makes it difficult to provide those services. It is prison."

The Utah State Hospital is no doubt the much better option, but it too has limited space and budget concerns. The forensic unit treats mostly those determined incompetent to stand trial. If through treatment the inmate can return to competency, they head to prison or jail.

All involved agree the answer to this growing crisis is treatment and education before the mentally ill commit crimes.

Salt Lake County has created a "Mental Health Court," aimed at assisting what Gill calls "frequent fliers" — the mentally ill who repeatedly commit crimes. Rather than sending them to jail, Mental Health Court connects the defendants with mental health professionals.

"If you can impact those people who are being released from prison, we can save theoretically up to $5 million annually," Gill said.

But programs like Mental Health Court take funding, and Schipaanboord said the Legislature's focus is on public safety, not treatment.

Meanwhile, the mentally ill inmates keep coming.

"I could plead for more staff and more facilities and all of those kinds of things, but that's the tail end of it," said Schipaanboord. "It's the prevention part I think that the work needs to be focused."

Salt Lake County just started a new program in January that helps mentally ill inmates transition back into society once they are released, to hopefully break the cycle of them re-offending and ending up back in prison.

e-mail: jstagg@desnews.com