One in Five State Prisoners Suffer from Serious Mental Ilness

Dec 6, 2016

Psychiatric Nurse Juanita Morris counsels a patient before she is released.
Credit Sandy Hausman / WVTF

Experts say one of every five people in state prison has a serious mental illness, and the rate is even higher at Virginia’s 62 regional jails, but the General Assembly provides little funding for mental health care behind bars. 

The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail has an average daily population of 470 men and women. Superintendent Martin Kumer has worked here for nearly 20 years, and over that time the number of inmates has been as high as 600.

“They were being housed on mats in the gym," Kumer says. "It was not a good situation here, and the jail authority was faced with the distinct possibility of having to add onto the jail at considerable expense – tens of millions of dollars.”

One big reason for the increase was a growing population of people with mental illness. That's according to Eugene Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist and director of mental health at the jail.

“Correctional facilities are becoming the de facto psychiatric care facilities," Simopoulos says. "As the number of beds are limited at state facilities have closed throughout Virginia, individuals are invariably ending up here and sometimes receiving mental health care for the first time.”

Simopoulos can only be at the jail one day a week – spending the rest of his time at Western State Hospital. That’s because Virginia provides very little funding for jailhouse prisoners suffering serious psychiatric conditions.

This is Part 3 in a 5-part series on mental health in Virginia. You can see all the stories here

Here, Charlottesville, Albemarle and Nelson counties chip in, making it possible to have a psychiatric nurse on staff. Researchers at the University of Virginia volunteered to find out how many prisoners needed help.

Under the supervision of Neal Goodloe, a criminal justice planner for regional government, UVA screened about 1,100 people jailed over an eight month period.

“Out of that 1,102, we found 273 met the minimum screening criteria for serious mental illness – schizophrenia, bi-polar disease and major depression, so about one in four individuals,” says Goodloe.

Ideally, those people should be connected to community mental health services before they’re released, but the research team found that was happening in less than 40-percent of cases.

That's why nurse Juanita Morris has stepped up her game. She now debriefs all prisoners with mental illness before they leave the jail.

“If you get to Florida, and they don’t want to fill that prescription, you call me here at the jail or e-mail me," Morris reminds one prisoner. "Remember, you were going to e-mail me anyway and tell me how great you’re doing. You were going to go back to school and back to work. I’m so proud of you."

The governor’s budget, to be considered by lawmakers next month, contains $3.5 million over two years for mental health services in jails.

We will now provide a mental health specialist at every probation and parole office in the Commonwealth. That's a first. It's unprecedented.

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran says there’s money to help inmates who are mentally ill, once they leave state prisons.

“We will now provide a mental health specialist at every probation and parole office in the Commonwealth. That’s a first. It’s unprecedented," Moran says. "It costs about $3 million, but it’s an effort that’s going to return money to the taxpayer.”

That's because prisoners with untreated mental illness are more likely to commit new crimes once they’re released – and it costs the state about $28,000 a year to keep each of them locked up.

Experts say it would be better and cheaper to simply divert people who are mentally ill from jails and prisons to treatment centers in the first place. In our next report, we’ll travel to Augusta County, where officials are doing just that.