ctnewsjunkie file photo
Sen. Cathy Osten and Rep. Toni Walker, co-chair the Appropriations Committee (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

More than 1 in 4 of the state’s inmates is classified as having a mental health issue that requires treatment, including more than 85% of the women held at York Correctional Institution who have a mild to severe mental health disorder, according to a report drafted by the state’s Sentencing Commission.

The findings confirm what state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, has suspected all along, she said. “All we did was change the geography when we closed state psychiatric hospitals,” Osten said.

Osten is prepared to use the information for legislation to adequately fund community mental health programs, including supportive housing, for those with mental health conditions.

When the state closed psychiatric facilities beginning in the mid-1990s, legislators agreed to find more money for community-based programs that would stabilize people with mental health concerns, said Osten who worked as a correction officer and supervisor for the Department of Correction for 21 years. 

But in the years since, what funding has been provided mainly was funneled to addiction services as the opioid crisis spread throughout the state. As a result, Osten said, police and the DOC routinely deal with people who have unaddressed mental health orders.

“I want people to recognize what’s going on,” Osten said. “We are using our prison system as a quasi-psychiatric facility and we expect people who work in the prison to know how to deal with a schizophrenic who may be not properly medicated or in crisis.”

The report, which was drafted at Osten’s request, examines the DOC’s administrative mechanism for determining who gets mental health care while incarcerated. The data is based on the DOC’s mental health care need classification system which rates inmates on a scale of 1 to 5 while looking at the inmate population as of May 22.

The classifications are not based on a clinical diagnosis but on a mental health evaluation as a person enters prison. A classification of MH 1 means an inmate has no mental health history and may be characterized as “emotionally stable.” A little over 31% of inmates were classified as MH 1, according to the report.

Another 40% of inmates were classified as MH 2 – with a history of mental health disorder who do not currently need treatment or who are considered as having a mild mental health disorder that does not need treatment.

The report says almost 3 in 10 inmates are classified as MH 3, MH 4 or MH 5 with mild to severe mental health disorders that may require a range of treatments from regular medication to specialized housing or 24-hour crisis care.

The data is broken down by gender and race with 86% of incarcerated females designated as MH 3 or higher while 1 in 4 males, who make up the bulk of the prison population, was designated as MH 3 or higher.

Considering race alone, Native Americans made up the largest population of inmates who needed mental health treatment at 56%, but they represented the smallest number of inmates by race at only 32. White inmates had the next-highest incidence of mental health disorders requiring treatment at 40%, followed by Asian inmates at 31%, Hispanic inmates at 26% and Black inmates at 22%.

Osten said the numbers for male inmates are likely skewed to the low side since some of the information is self-reported. “Men rarely self-report because it’s seen as a sign of weakness,” she said.

“What this shows to me is that we are using our prison system for thousands of people who shouldn’t be there,” Osten said.

The report does not address if those who are designated as needing help, are actually receiving it in the timeframe specified in DOC policies, said Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, which provides legal services for low-income clients with mental health disorders.

Flaherty pointed out that while overall, 28% of inmates are listed as needing mental health treatment, another 40% have either a history of mental health disorders or have an issue that has not been deemed as currently needing treatment.

“You’re suddenly at 68% which means two out of three either have, or have a history of, mental health conditions,” Flaherty said. “That is definitely out of whack with overall population stats.”

“What this really shows is that the state needs to figure out where it can make more cost-effective investments,” Flaherty said. “You can spend it on community-based mental health programs and supports or you can spend it on the DOC and then have people released with all the consequences of a criminal record.”

Keeping people with mental health issues out of prison should be a priority, said Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “Any situation that avoids the police-prosecution-and-prison stamping machine is going to be an improvement,” Barrett said.

Police and the courts often mistakenly believe that criminal charges are a way to “get a person help,” Barrett said. He said his organization has found that people often wind up in prison with no care and then are released with a criminal record that further hampers their ability to address their own basic needs.

“People say the system will sort it out,” Barrett said. “But the system will not sort it out. The person will sit in prison where they get no care.”