County jail provides care to mentally ill

Published 9:59 pm Saturday, August 13, 2016

All of Mississippi’s state departments have begun feeling the tremors of the recent budget cuts approved during the 2016 legislative session, but many have focused on the effect it is having in the Department of Mental Health.

At the end of the legislative session, the department saw a funding cut of approximately $8.3 million, or 4.4 percent, prompting the elimination of more than 100 beds at Mississippi State Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital and South Mississippi State Hospital.

Steve Rushing

Steve Rushing

The ramifications of this has already begun to trickle down to the local level, resulting in county jails being responsible for even more cases involving mentally ill individuals.

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Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said the cuts on the Department of Health side make the waiting period for mental health patients to get a bed longer.

“The state hospitals only have so many beds they can hold and patients are coming from all over the state,” Rushing said. “You could imagine the kind of traffic they get.”

Despite hearing how the lack of state beds for mental health patients is drowning other counties, Rushing does not anticipate the adverse effects of the cut to have as large of an impact on Lincoln County due to its partnership with Region 8.

About five years ago, Lincoln County approved the use of Region 8’s services to handle both types of mental cases — one involving a chancery court mental commitment by a family member and the other involving a person who committed a crime. Rushing deals with the latter, he said.

A family can file a mental writ on a person in chancery court, giving the sheriff’s department the authority to pick that person up and take them to get treatment, Rushing said.

“Those are people whose families feel like they need mental help and feel like they won’t go get it, so they file the commitment,” Rushing said. “We pick them up and take them to two doctors and Region 8.”

After being held by the county and Region 8, the court has a hearing and if they deem the person mentally ill, they go to a state hospital for treatment, he said.

Before partnering with Region 8, Rushing said if a mental writ was issued, the sheriff’s department had to pick them up, bring them to jail and hold them until the county hearing.

“Now, Region 8 handles all of that for us,” Rushing said. “We still have to pick them up, and unless it’s an extreme violent case, Region 8 takes them, and treats them until their hearing. Region 8’s been the best thing we’ve had.”

If the chancery court deems a person mentally ill, Region 8 works with the sheriff’s department to provide continued treatment until a bed becomes available at a state hospital.

When the sheriff arrests a person on criminal charges that indicates they have a mental illness, Rushing calls Region 8 to do an assessment.

“They’ll come over, do an assessment for us and decide what kind of treatment plan they need to have,” he said. “They are not being held on mental illness reasons, they’re being held here on criminal charges, so they have to stay in the jail. But we do give them access to a treatment plan.”

The process becomes tedious when an individual’s attorney presents reasoning to a judge that the person is mentally incapable of standing fit for trial, Rushing said.

“To my understanding, the judge must order a psychological evaluation, which has to be done by a state official,” Rushing said. “I’ve seen it take up to six or seven months to get one back. They either have to wait for the evaluation to be done or for the report to come back.”

During the waiting period, the person stays in the jail with access to Region 8 care, Rushing said.

Rushing said it depends on where a hospital bed becomes available as to where Lincoln County patients end up.

“Some counties don’t have the services we’re fortunate enough to have from Region 8,” Rushing said. “They don’t have the access to Region 8 like we do, so they have to pick up their mental patients and hold them in jails. We used to have to do the same thing. But that’s what we have fought for years. They’re sick. They don’t need to be in a jail cell. They need to be in a hospital. We try to handle it with as much compassion and sympathy we can.”

Unfortunately, the way Lincoln County handles mental illness cases is rare for the state.

Tunica County Sheriff and president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association K.C. Hamp said, “The cuts will affect every county across the state and affect the adequate care and treatment for people with those illnesses. Local county sheriffs are not equipped to handle people with these conditions.”

Joi Owens, managing attorney for Disability Rights Mississippi, an organization involved in several cases in which people with disabilities are suing to gain access to services, said that most people with mental illness do not receive the services they need when incarcerated.

“Mental-health services and supports, especially those which are community-based to maximize independence and stability, need to be expanded throughout the state,” Owens said. “Cuts to already inadequate mental-health services are likely to add more pressure to the criminal justice system rather than improving the quality and variety of services available.”

Rushing said the county must pay the expenses collected for each mentally ill person.

“We get absolutely zero from the state to deal with mental health cases,” he said. “They are at the full expense of the county — their housing, their medication and their meals.”

The number of Lincoln County’s mentally ill patients varies throughout the year, Rushing said.

“Sometimes we get three or four a month and then sometimes we get three or four a week,” he said.

Mississippi as a whole came under fire this week when the United States Justice Department moved to fight the growing problem concerning the treatment of the mentally ill.

In the lawsuit against the state, the Justice Department alleges that Mississippi violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act by failing to provide adults with mental illness with necessary integrated, community-based mental health services.

The community integration mandate of the ADA and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. require states to make services available to people with disabilities — including people with mental illness — in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

After conducting a comprehensive investigation in December 2011, the Justice Department found that the state’s system for serving individuals with mental health disabilities violates the ADA.

According to a Justice Department press release, “The department found that the state unnecessarily institutionalizes adults and children with disabilities and fails to ensure that they have access to necessary services and supports in the community.  The state has recognized these failures but has not yet implemented the required reforms to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.”

“In Mississippi, adults with mental illness receive inadequate mental health care — care that is too often in segregated, institutional placements,” U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi said.  “Mississippi has not developed the necessary supports in the community to prevent unnecessary institutionalization as required by the ADA.”

Mississippi and the Justice Department engaged in discussions since issuing its findings to reach a settlement, but were unable to come to an agreement, resulting in the United States filing a lawsuit under the ADA and CRIPA against Mississippi.