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Another Voice: Shamefully, the mentally ill are being warehoused in jails

By Ann Venuto

Thanks to the persistence of reporter Matthew Spina and The Buffalo News, details about the death of Richard Metcalf Jr. at the Erie County Holding Center (ECHC) in 2012 have been brought to light. In February of this year, 27-year-old India Cummings was hospitalized in cardiac arrest after spending two weeks in the ECHC. Both victims suffered severe injuries at the hands of sheriff’s deputies that led to their deaths.

Hundreds of families in Western New York have experienced the unimaginable ordeal of witnessing a loved one with a brain disorder incarcerated because the mental health system has failed them by shifting the burden of care to the criminal justice system.

Placing people with mental illness in jail is a travesty that occurs daily in every city in this country. This places an unfair burden on police and corrections officers as well as those who live with mental illness. These shameful conditions could have been prevented if state legislatures had been accountable for adequately funding community mental health resources years ago.

In 2010, the federal government reached a settlement agreement with the ECHC that addressed inhumane conditions. Since then mental health services have been dramatically improved with the creation of a specialized mental health unit, thanks to the dedicated professionals of the University at Buffalo Department of Psychiatry and Erie County Forensic Mental Health Services.

However, the fact remains that prisoners who may exhibit bizarre behavior and violence as a symptom of brain disorders are supervised by personnel who lack adequate knowledge of mental illness and appropriate intervention protocols such as de-escalation strategies that can be used rather than resorting to brutal and, sometimes, homicidal force.

Family members will be the first to admit that some of the behaviors that their loved ones exhibit at times can be extremely challenging and require far more expertise to manage than can be expected from prison guards. The treatment of those who live with severe mental illness always requires a therapeutic environment and various treatment modalities delivered by an interdisciplinary team of professionals.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Buffalo & Erie County fully supports a new investigation into conditions at the Erie County Holding Center, expansion of video surveillance in the jail and hiring standards that address psychological fitness for the job of guards. In addition, we urge crisis intervention training for all police and corrections officers.

Most of all, we call for an end to the shameful practice of warehousing those who live with mental illness in our nation’s prisons.

Ann Venuto, R.N., M.S., P.M.H.N.P., is president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Buffalo & Erie County.

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