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Mentally Ill Prisoners In South Dakota Are Receiving Inadequate Care

By Derick Limberg

According to statistics, South Dakota jails and prisons are failing to properly care for their mentally ill prisoners. A 2006 Department of Justice report found 56% of state and 64% of county prisoners reported symptoms of mental disorders.

Over the past 50 years, states have been closing mental hospitals and attempting to integrate the would-be mental patients into society with the aid of psychotropic medications. “De facto, jails are becoming mental health facilities,” said Phyllis Arends, executive director of South Dakota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. Arends also stated that her organization needs to examine mental health care in South Dakota jails and prisons. “I think things aren’t as well as they would like us to believe,” she said.

The Minnehaha County Jail (MCJ) is a prime example of deficient care. It averages 300 prisoners daily and roughly 50 can be considered mentally ill. The jail contracts for only 28 hours of weekly counseling and psychiatric assistance from Yankton’s Human Services Center.

While MCJ has drug and alcohol treatment programs, it has no specific treatment for prisoners with mental issues. “The jail is not a treatment facility,” said Sheriff Mike Milstead. “The average stay is 11 days. Not a lot of diagnosis and treatment can be done in 11 days.” Arends disagrees, saying, “people can be held there up to a year. They need to have things in place. People’s lives are at stake.”

The South Dakota Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health reports that 100 of their 3000 state prisoners are classified as having a Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI).

South Dakota’s three prisons only employ 12 full time counseling and psychiatric staff members to work with SPMI prisoners. However, only about 4% of those prisoners receive regular attention from mental health workers. In contrast, roughly 25% of Minnesota prisoners routinely receive mental health services because the state employs twice as many mental health workers per prisoner as South Dakota.

Milstead argues that the most significant changes are needed beyond the walls of jails and prisons. “A community program … can do an even better job of making sure (they) are getting the right medication and are following up on aftercare,” he said. “Many of these people do not need to be behind bars.”

Considering the fact that most prisoners are eventually released into the community, society must do a better job of ensuring mentally ill people access to the care and medication required to treat their conditions. Until that happens, jails and prisons will continue to be society’s mental health treatment centers.

Sources: Argus Lender.

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