Sheriff: Ga. jail is 'the place that many mentally ill people end up'

On any given day, there are about 60 inmates with serious mental conditions housed at the Muscogee County Jail

By Alva James-Johnson
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

MUSCOGEE COUNTY, Ga. — On any given day, there are about 60 inmates with serious mental conditions housed at the Muscogee County Jail, according to Sheriff Donna Tompkins.

Most are placed in mental health dorms — two for men and one for women — isolated from the rest of the population.

In addition, there are 13 cells reserved for inmates on suicide watch. And not a day goes by that there isn’t someone who fits that description, the sheriff said.

“I think it is a problem in the community where the jail is the place that many mentally ill people end up,” she said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

Tompkins made the comments after the Ledger-Enquirer published a video, which showed Muscogee County Jail deputies and correctional officers beating and stunning a naked inmate on suicide watch during a 2016 incident.

Jail employes have said the inmate, Cortney Jackson, had refused verbal commands and become physically violent toward guards, grabbing two of them by their shirts and holding one in a headlock.

Guards stunned Jackson 10 times with a Taser before the ordeal was over, according to the reports obtained by the Ledger-Enquirer via an open records request.

On July 18, 2016, Maj. T. Culpepper described the use of force as extensive and “outside of policy under most circumstances.” He recommended better training for staff to avoid such situations in the future.

The incident occurred three days after Jackson was stunned in another altercation after asking guards for a psychiatrist. He is suing city officials for cruel and unusual punishment based on at least four incidents where he claims to have been physically assaulted by jail personnel.

The incident occurred under the administration of former Sheriff John Darr.

Though Tompkins refused to comment specifically on the case due to the pending litigation, she said inmates with mental health conditions are a growing concern at the facility.

She said some correctional officers and deputies have completed Crisis Intervention Training. And the Sheriff’s Office contracts with New Horizons Behavioral Health for mental health services, costing $168,000 annually.

Yet, the number of inmates with mental health conditions remains challenging, she said.

The scenario Tompkins describes is not unique to Columbus, according to experts who track the intersection between people with mental conditions and the criminal justice system.

John Snook is executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit organization that researches issues around the lack of access to mental healthcare.

In 2016, the center conducted a survey of sheriffs across the country due to the concern that jails and prisons were becoming warehouses for the mentally ill because of the lack of services available in their communities.

“Incarceration has largely replaced hospitalization for thousands of individuals with serious mental illnesses in the U.S., with state prisons and county jails holding as many as 10 times more of these individuals than state psychiatric hospitals,” according to the report. “ Because individuals with serious mental illnesses are predisposed to committing minor crimes due to their illnesses, many end up being detained in county jails with limited or no mental health treatment until a state hospital bed becomes available for them. Some have even been jailed in the absence of any criminal charges.”

Snook said the Department of Justice has found the average mentally ill jail population to be anywhere from 16 to 20 percent across the country. In some counties the percentages are even higher.

In the 2016 survey conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center, sheriffs reported seriously mentally ill inmates at practically every jail in the nation.

“Not only are the numbers increasing, the folks are much sicker than they used to be five or 10 years ago,” Snook said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “So you set up a situation where you’ve basically set up law enforcement as your de facto mental health provider.

“If the treatment standard for whether or not you can provide someone care is, ‘Are they dangerous? — which too often is the standard by which we decide whether or not to provide people care,” he said, “you end up in situations where people are getting arrested simply because of symptoms of their illness. So, you’ve criminalized what is an illness. And that’s what we’re seeing all across the country.”

Snook said sheriffs surveyed made it clear that they didn’t feel they had the resources to adequately care for mentally ill individuals.

“The back-end evidence really pans that out,” he said. “If you have a mental illness in a jail, basically you can predict pretty easily that you are going to stay there longer than someone who doesn’t have a mental illness. And it’s simply because you’re not able to interact in an effective way in the jail, so you’re having behavioral infractions, you’re not able to stay out of trouble.

“... There’s also evidence that things like solitary confinement and the severe stress of being incarcerated can either exacerbate it or cause to appear underlying mental health, mental illness conditions,” he added.

Snook said cases where Tasers and force are used to subdue mentally ill inmates are really the worse-case scenarios.

“I don’t know if there are any quantifiable numbers yet on how often these sorts of engagements happen,” he said. “But I will say that we do see them pretty regularly. So there has been sort of a concurrent focus on trying to provide corrections officers with some of the sort of mental health training that we typically would assume that the cops on the beat would get.”

The National Association of Counties currently has initiatives aiming to set standard definitions for how to determine if someone has a mental illness he or she enters the jail.

“What you often hear from a sheriff is if a person has any wherewithal, they may not tell you they have a mental illness because if you’re going into the jail, you may get a different colored jump suit, you may be given a different living situation,” he said. “You may be targeted then because you’re seen as someone weaker and easier to victimize.”

For that reason, the percentage of people identified as having a mental condition is often lower than the actual numbers.

Sheriff Tompkins said every inmate is evaluated during the intake process when they enter the Muscogee County Jail. If it’s determined that they have a serious mental condition, they’re placed in one of the dorms reserved for people with mental illness or the suicide watch area.

She said a nurse is there at all times. Counselors and psychiatrists are also available, but they are not there 24/7.

“So, if you say you want to see the psychiatrist, we would tell nurse,” she said. “... Being in that particular area, you’re not only being monitored by nursing staff, you are being monitored by the mental health staff as well. And they have to come by and see you every day.”

©2018 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)

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