LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Jails can’t treat mental illness

In the wake of two recent suicides at the D.C. Jail, the Department of Corrections must and will aggressively ensure all available resources are devoted to preventing future suicides (“Inmate found dead from apparent suicide at D.C. jail,” Web, June 30). We are taking immediate steps to enhance suicide-prevention protocols to include a comprehensive review of all suicide-prevention procedures. These will include mental-health assessments, assistance from the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections, a joint behavioral health task force, and the review of lines of communication with other D.C. and criminal-justice agencies that may have contact with individuals prior to jail commitment. A larger issue to address is the number of mentally ill being housed in jails and prisons.

A serious issue for corrections administrators across the country is the incarceration of severely mentally ill offenders. Our jails and prisons, including here in the District, have started to become psychiatric hospitals, but with few mental-health professionals. There is a critical need for alternatives where mental illness is concerned, and the need to shift the responsibility of untreated mental illness out of the criminal justice system.

The diversion of the mentally ill from the criminal justice system and local jails needs a system- and community-wide approach. In 2008, the Vera Institute of Justice conducted a study that found 33 percent of the people arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department had a known mental health need. Another study of the D.C. Jail’s inmate population found 40 percent had a history of psychiatric diagnosis. Jails are not the place for people with severe mental illnesses, and most local jails do not have the resources to provide wholly adequate psychiatric services.

We must continue to address the realities of caring for the incarcerated mentally ill. At the same time, we need to develop a system to shift the responsibility of caring for the mentally ill back to the professionals trained to care for them, rather than waiting for corrections facilities to be given the task.


Director, D.C. Department of Corrections


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