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No Room for the Mentally Ill, Except In Jail

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The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo has a shortage of forensic beds. Those impacted the most are mentally ill inmates in need of evaluation and treatment. The situation is particularly frustrating to sheriffs and judges. CMHIP Superintendent Steve Schoenmakers says,

“We’re stuck with a specific bed capacity and the federal (Neiberger) lawsuit prevents us from going over that. We understand the negative impact that’s having on the county sheriffs and the jails. But just bear with us until we can figure out some other ways to get people in and out (of CMHIP.)

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The shortage is the result of court-imposed limits on capacity and mandatory staff-patient ratios. In addition, the number of inmates needing psychiatric evaluations is growing. One way the hospital is coping is by keeping a greater number of inmates in jail during the competency evauluation process. A potential solution is on the horizon:

CMHIP supporters are working to gain legislative support for a new $57.9 million, 200-bed forensics unit to be built by a private investment company. The state lacks necessary capital construction funds. The proposal calls for the state Human Services Department to lease the building for about $4.8 million a year for at least 10 years, with renewable options.

If the legislature doesn’t act by June 30, the situation will deteriorate further. Limits imposed under the settlement terms of an earlier lawsuit will mean even fewer beds are available. Our prisons too often house the mentally ill, who need treatment, not warehousing. And too often prisoners are subjected to conditions that would impair the mental health of even the most stable person, often with tragic consequences. More than 250,000 Americans with mental illness currently reside in jails. Our penal institututions have become the country’s primary provider of mental-health services. For more on this topic, I recommend reading Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness, a report by Human Rights Watch.

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