Emily Cooper, David Carlson or David Lord, Disability Rights Washington, (206) 324-1521

SEATTLE – Imagine having a mental health crisis and finding yourself in a county jail, with little or no mental health treatment, isolated with no direct human contact, in a cell with no toilet or furniture for 23-24 hours a day, wearing only a smock, as days become weeks, then months, all while the symptoms of your mental illness get worse.  

According to a report, released today by Disability Rights Washington (DRW), this is a recurring problem in local jails across the state. Over the last few years, people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and traumatic brain injuries have had to wait for several weeks or even months to get an evaluation to see whether or not they are competent to stand trial. If they are found incompetent to stand trial, they often wait additional weeks or months to get services at the state hospital where there is mental health treatment designed to restore competency to stand trial. While they wait in jail, they are held with little or no mental or behavioral health treatment, often under severe punitive conditions for disability-related behavior. This includes being held in isolation, where their mental health often deteriorates.

Individuals may be held for low-level infractions, like trespassing or vagrancy, often because mental health services were unavailable. “It is unacceptable that people end up in jail facing criminal charges simply because they cannot obtain the mental health services they need in the community. We are turning these individuals into prisoners when they should be patients,” said Emily Cooper, attorney with DRW.

“Jail is the worst possible place for people struggling with serious mental illness.  As a society, we need to stop the pattern of unnecessary incarceration of people with mental illness,” said Gordon Bopp, President of the Washington Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  “They are not criminals. Nobody chooses to have a mental illness, and therefore nobody should be jailed for having one. Instead, they should be offered treatment,” Bopp said.

Along with sheriffs, mental health providers, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and disability advocates, DRW has worked on this issue through multiple legislative sessions. Last year, the Legislature adopted an aspirational, seven-day performance target for the completion of competency evaluations and state hospital admission for restoration services. The Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee confirmed in a report issued last month that the state hospitals are failing to meet this target, and the time people spend in jail awaiting evaluation and treatment is growing.

“The longer a person with a mental health crisis spends in jail, the more devastating and long-lasting the consequence,” said David Lord, DRW Director of Public Policy.  “Eliminating the excessive time these individuals spend in deplorable jail conditions must be one of the highest priorities of the legislature,” Lord said.

Also available for interviews:  

Tommy Manning, Advocate for people with traumatic brain injury, and individual jailed for disability-related behavior, (206) 324-1521 (coordinated by DRW)

Gordon Bopp, President, Washington State National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), (509) 946-8291

Sandi Ando, Spokane NAMI, (509) 385-3026

Judy Snow, Pierce County Jail Mental Health Manager, (253) 677-1919

Daron Morris, Deputy Director, The Defender Association, (206) 447-3900

Cindy Arends, Washington Defender Association, (206) 623-4321

Eileen Farley, Northwest Defenders Association, (206) 529-3100

Related Reports

2012 Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee Briefing:  Competency to stand trial, phase I

Council on State Governments: Criminal justice/mental health consensus report

House Bill 2078 Work Group, Task Force Report: Screening for people with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury in jails and correctional facilities

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