After reviewing the results of a study that showed vast numbers of inmates in the state’s prisons may need mental health treatment, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, is proposing a bill that would require a diagnosis.
The bill requires the state Department of Correction to work with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to accurately diagnose the incarcerated population.
SB 220 would make sweeping changes in the way the Department of Correction identifies inmates with mental health concerns and will require the agency to keep track of sentencing and recidivism information on those who are incarcerated with a mental illness.
“I think this is the one thing that people are not paying attention to in the DOC,” Osten said. “I think the criminal justice system has been overwhelmed with people who don’t have other places to go.”
Osten, a former long-time DOC employee, has been suggesting similar legislation for years, she said. She asked the Sentencing Commission to review the mental health status of all inmates and formulate a report that would clearly lay out how many people have mental health needs.
The results were predictable, she said. More than one-quarter of the state’s inmates are 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 the report.
The findings revealed that 28% of inmates had 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 report said.
Another 40% of inmates were classified as having 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 catch is the bulk of the information gathered by the DOC to make mental health status classifications is self-reported by the inmates. The amount of mental health treatment an inmate receives is dependent on their classification, according to the report.
Osten’s bill would require the DOC and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to work together to establish protocols to accurately assess the mental health of inmates from the date of incarceration to the date they are released.
The assessment would include whether the inmate had suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child. She is also seeking to require the DOC to use a monitoring tool to determine if a person suffers from focal onset impaired awareness seizures which typically cause muscle contractions, staring into space or brief instances when the person experiences a change in consciousness.
The legislation would require the DOC to gather information on the average amount of time people with a mental illness serve in prison compared to those who do not have a mental illness and identify the rate of recidivism for those with mental illness and the services available to them when they are released.
Osten’s concern is that the closing of mental health institutions has pushed people into prisons in part because there is no place else for them to go. “We’ve simply changed geography,” she said.
But, according to Osten, the DOC is not equipped to handle the needs of mentally ill inmates.
“The DOC is not designed to be a psychiatric institution,” she said. “Workers should not have to handle situations that aren’t under their purview.”
The bill would be the first step in transforming services for inmates who are suffering from mental illness, she said. It’s not going to be cheap, she added. The assessment process outlined in the legislation is an expensive proposition, she conceded, and it doesn’t include the cost of treatment which would be evaluated and calculated at a later date.
“First we have to do this piece,” she said. “And then we can address the rest later.”