Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague (Christine Stuart photo)

In the wake of findings showing nearly one in three people incarcerated in Connecticut has a mental health disorder requiring treatment, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, will again propose legislation to require the Department of Correction to better diagnose and treat mental health issues.

Osten introduced similar legislation last year after a study revealed a vast number of inmates self-reported a mental health issue. That bill, which failed to gain traction, would have required the DOC to work with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to accurately diagnose inmates and keep track of sentencing and recidivism data on inmates who suffer from mental illness.

This time around, Osten is targeting ways that the DOC can get a better picture of an inmate’s mental health, including having the agency review presentencing investigation reports and by adding questions about mental health and trauma to the intake form used for all individuals entering the prison system.

“If we are going to continue to use prisons as our quasi-psychiatric facilities we have to address the needs of the people we incarcerate,” Osten said.

As a former longtime DOC employee, Osten 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

She said she wasn’t surprised by the results, which showed 28% of the state’s inmates have a mental health issue that requires treatment. The problem is especially acute among incarcerated women: more than 85% have mental health disorders ranging from mild to severe according to the report.

Overall, another 40% of inmates were classified as either having a history of mental health disorder or a mild mental health disorder but do not currently need treatment.

The report pointed out that the bulk of the information gathered by the DOC to make mental health status classifications is self-reported by the inmates and the amount of mental health treatment they receive is, in turn, dependent on their classification. Osten believes the percentage of men who reported a mental health concern is low since they have a harder time coming forward. The process she envisions would cut out self-reports and rely more on information from the presentence investigation and other sources.

“The DOC needs to do an actual review of the inmate population,” to provide treatment, Osten said.

The other piece of the puzzle is the number of staff to adequately address inmates’ mental health concerns, Osten said. As the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Osten plans on questioning the DOC about the mental health staff they currently have in order to assess how many more are needed to provide regular treatment, she said.

“We have to see what positions have been filled,” Osten said. That would include data from the DOC on how many mental health clinicians including social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and APRNs with a mental health specialty and how many more would be needed, she said.

The DOC used the most overtime of any state agency in 2021 – $93 million – due to short staffing and staff outages due to the pandemic, she said.

“We’d have to put money into the budget to get people hired,” Osten said.