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A ‘broken system’ for mental health, criminal justice

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian A panel of experts discussed mental health and the criminal justice system at SUNY Fredonia. The panel includes (from left) professor of criminal justice and sociology, Patrick Johnson; social worker at Chautauqua County Jail Tamie Gates; Dr. Dani McMay; Dr. Caillean McMayon Tronetti. Standing at the podium is the event coordinator Dr. Lisa Denton from the department of psychology.

If anyone is qualified to offer a penetratingly honest critique of the criminal justice system as it relates to the mentally ill, it’s Patrick Johnson.

Johnson, who retired as warden of the Chautauqua County Jail in 2013 after a 31-year career in corrections, and currently teaches as a professor of criminal justice and sociology of deviant behavior at SUNY Fredonia, had little positive to say about the system he spent most of his career working in.

“We have a very broken system and there’s not a big urgency to change it,” Johnson told a packed lecture hall at State University of New York at Fredonia during a recent panel discussion about mental health and the criminal justice system.

The other panelists included two Chautauqua County Jail social workers Lynn Graziano-Shaffer and Tamie Gates; psychiatrist Dr. Caillean McMahon Tronetti; and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Dani McMay.

The event was proctored by Dr. Lisa Denton from the Department of Psychology.

While the panelists agreed that the structure of support for mentally ill patients who find themselves in the jail/prison system is better than it was 10 years ago — particularly with the quality of medication, much improvement is still needed.

The event began with the showing of a PBS Frontline documentary called “The New Asylums” which tracked the lives of five inmates suffering from significant mental illness within Ohio’s state prison system. The overall thesis of the documentary is that while the prison system struggles “as best it can” to help treat inmates with mental illness, it is far from the ideal place for such people, especially given the extreme lack of support for inmates returning to society.

This issue turns even bleaker when considering a 2015 Urban Institute Report stating that 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are considered mentally ill. The same report finds that 73 percent of female inmates are mentally ill.

As illustrated in the video, many mentally ill prisoners in this country are serving time for crimes that initially came with short sentences. However, due to their mental illness, their behavior deteriorates to such an extent, they find themselves getting regularly put into solitary confinement and end up missing out on parole opportunities.

When they do finally serve their sentence and are released into society, they are given only two weeks worth of their prescribed medication. Without the support from family or social networks, the released prisoner often can’t secure a doctor’s appointment in time to refill their prescriptions and run out of the drugs designed to treat their illness.

Now off their meds, the mentally ill often become homeless and again turn towards crime, resulting in another jail or prison sentence.

Dr. Dani McMay, who has experience in Gowanda and Collins correctional facilities, said that although there are some services for released prisoners with mental illness, “You have to know about them. You have to be very aggressive to get them. When you’re already suffering from an illness, it’s going to be very difficult for you to aggressively advocate for yourself to get help.”

Tronetti, who has more than 30 years of psychiatric experience and currently works with the Chautauqua Center, challenged the audience, many of them psychology students, to become advocates.

“You’re going to have to advocate for your clients, advocate for the population in general,” she implored. “Advocate for improvements. Improvements do not come on their own. They move at the speed of a glacier; by the way, enjoy the metaphor, because your kids will have no idea what a glacier was. You’re going to need to realize the limitations of the system and find ways to overcome them.”

Among the improvements the panel called for are better and more housing for newly released prisoners. Such halfway houses would ideally be staffed by professionals who would monitor and support the released individuals with transitioning into normal society.

When asked by an audience member if there is any such housing within Chautauqua County, the answer was a stark “no.”

At the local level, Gates and Graziano-Shaffer said that communication with staff regarding mentally ill inmates at the Chautauqua County Jail has been improving.

“We’re trying to create (support) services for them,” Gates said. “Lynn (Graziano-Shaffer) and I try really hard to help them get to the right place they need to be that’s not jail. Medication is just one piece of the puzzle. Healthy support, exercise, food.”

Gates said that families and communities often lose hope and run out of energy to support their mentally ill relatives who fall into crime.

“They feel they can’t help anymore,” she said. “If this were any other kind of illness there would be fundraisers and casseroles, but because it’s a mental health or addiction issue, we don’t see that same sort of support.”

Johnson urged that experts and politicians look to other developed nations for answers, especially given that the United States has more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world.

“We can look at models they’ve been (implementing) in Europe and Scandinavia and see how those systems can work compared to what we’re doing in this country,” Johnson said.

“In Norway, they use correction officers, take the (released prisoners) out of the doggone prison, they take them to the mall, sit down and have coffee. There are people coming out of prison who don’t know how to wash their hands because they’ve never seen one of those motion detecting sinks.

“(In Norway) they have officers bringing people out to the community helping them with the transition. Here, you’re in prison one day and free the next, what the hell do you do? We can do better in this country.”

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