Like other prison systems throughout the nation, Connecticut's is reaching peak capacity. In the midst of dealing with overcrowding and parole issues, the Connecticut Department of Correction (CDOC) must also determine how to handle a growing number of prisoners with mental health issues.
To readers of PLN, the increasing population of mentally ill offenders in America's prisons is nothing new. Even prison guards recognize the difference between treating mental illness and warehousing mentally ill prisoners. "We've become society's mental health provider," said Steve Curran, a guard at CDOC's Garner Correctional Institution (GCI) and Secretary of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1565.
After becoming CDOC's Commissioner, Theresa C. Lantz designated GCI as a facility to house mentally ill prisoners. Currently about 450 of GCI's 554 prisoners are classified as having mental problems. Yet, Lantz has insisted that she is "... not running a mental health hospital."
Curran observed that guards regard mentally ill prisoners as prisoners first, while the nurses "are treating them as clients and patients."
Recognizing that could pose a problem, Connecticut's 2006 General Assembly passed a bill that requires additional psychiatric training for guards.
Most mentally ill people who land in prison are there for minor offenses. "Everybody calls the police when someone becomes disruptive, and those people are often mentally ill," said state Rep. Patricia Dillon. The co-chair of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, agreed.
As a former prosecutor, Lawlor acknowledged that homeless citizens who trespass, urinate in public or cause other disturbances are often sent to prison. "Because there seems to be no other options, they end up being dumped in jail," he said.
Dillon and Lawlor are not alone among legislators on this issue. "I question whether we're incarcerating the right people for the right reasons," stated Deputy House Majority Leader Toni Walker.
The questions being raised by lawmakers are largely a result of the drain that mentally ill prisoners are placing on the state's budget. With the recent release of a CDOC report that found 20 percent of the state's prison population was mentally ill, the expense of caring for those prisoners has become a serious fiscal issue.
The cost of providing medical care for prisoners has increased 22 percent in recent years. Consequently, the state's prison medical budget ballooned from $77.4 million in 2003-04 to almost $100 million for 2007-08. CDOC's population has remained relatively stable over that time period. According to Majority Leader Walker, care for mentally ill prisoners has significantly contributed to the cost increase.
Because counselor-based treatment of the mentally ill is more expensive than pharmaceutical treatment, prison officials prefer to administer psychotropic drugs. Such drugs have the effect of making mentally ill prisoners feel in a stupor, which makes them more compliant; thus, guards prefer this method of treatment, too. The financial result is that CDOC's most recent $9.6 million increase in prisoner healthcare costs comes in part from a 7 percent rise in spending for pharmaceuticals.
What to do with or about the mentally ill has become a major issue due to a September 24, 2007 temporary ban on parole for prisoners convicted of violent offences, which has put a squeeze on the prison population. That squeeze has about 300 CDOC prisoners sleeping on beds in gym areas because there are not enough cells.
The parole restrictions were enacted by Gov. M. Jodi Rell following two violent incidents involving parolees. The first occurred when two parolees were arrested for a July 23, 2007 home invasion and triple murder in Cheshire. The second was when another parolee was shot and wounded by New York police as he exited a vehicle he had carjacked at knife point.
"We will ensure that violent offenders who pose a risk to society stay behind bars while continuing to help nonviolent offenders make the most effective transition possible back to society," said Governor Rell.
Some legislators disagreed. They felt that releasing certain nonviolent prisoners, such as drug addicts, would be freeing the ones who were more likely to reoffend. "You are potentially creating a lot more problems here," said Rep. Lawlor.
Under Connecticut law, prisoners who commit violent crimes must complete 85 percent of their sentences, while nonviolent offenders need only complete about half of their prison terms before they can obtain parole.
Despite having already served longer sentences, Gov. Rell ordered state officials to review the files of 600 to 800 violent offenders who are currently on parole.
"If we identify anyone in this review who has failed to follow the terms of their release, or if anyone currently on parole fails to do so in the future. we will revoke their parole and return them to prison to serve the balance of their sentence," she said.
The CDOC's population has increased from 18,869 prisoners in July 2007 to 19,655 since the ban on parole for violent offenders was implemented last September. The state's prison system is only designed to hold about 17,600. The overcrowding and inherent increase in the prison population that will result due to the parole restrictions has lawmakers concerned.
"It's pretty clear the governor did not do a lot of checking before she announced her policy," Lawlor said. "It's not clear exactly what their plan is to keep a lid on the [prison] population."
Governor Rell declined an invitation to testify before the legislature to detail her plans. CDOC Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz appeared in her stead. Prior to Gov. Rell's new parole policy, Lantz had said the prison system was "full." Yet she claimed there was no maximum population, as the system could adjust to increases without more money, a new prison or added resources.
"Is there ever a limit as to how many prisoners you can fit into a building?" asked Rep. Gerald Fox, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
"As of right now, we have enough bed space," said Lantz, who maintained her position that the number of available prison beds was "fluid." Nearly 230 beds are being added to the prison system. It was not clear whether those beds would be created by triple-celling, by placing more bunks in gymnasiums or other non-housing areas, or by erecting tents to hold prisoners.
"It defies logic to think you can have a substantial shift in policy without any financial repercussions," said Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, Lawlor's co-chairman on the Judiciary Committee.
One option being explored is electronic monitoring. However, whether it's electronic supervision, half-way houses or continued imprisonment, there is no doubt those choices will have fiscal consequences. "All these options come with a price tag," Lawlor observed.
The conversation then shifted back to mentally ill prisoners. To accommodate their incarceration, Lantz suggested the state consider building a $150 million, 1,200-bed prison medical facility. She conceded that such a prison would be at capacity by the time it could be constructed. Rep. Lawlor viewed it as another dumping ground. "They?ll send everybody there," he said.
Another solution is in order, as Lawlor sees it: "If you want to free up prison beds then get these mentally ill people out of there."
"We have to make decisions about who we let out of prison," said Rep. Dillon in reference to the dilemma of mentally ill prisoners. "But how can we make those decisions if we don't have the staff we need?"
One significant problem is that mentally ill prisoners with no support structure risk becoming homeless after their release. Without a job or community support, the mentally ill ultimately commit so-called "poverty crimes" that offend middle class society's sense of decorum, such as sleeping in public or being loud and disruptive. In the end, there is a recurring cycle of prison to freedom and return to prison for mentally ill citizens. Either way there is a price tag.
For now, society seems to accept the practice of prison warehousing over effective psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill. In the short term it's cheaper; as an added bonus, it serves political "tough on crime" rhetoric. In November 2007, a bill was introduced in the Connecticut legislature to enact a three-strikes law for violent offenders and to build two new state prisons.
Sources: Hartford Courant, Stanford Advocate, www.nhregister.com
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