BLOOMINGTON — A new survey of 230 sheriff's departments in 39 states shows an increase in the number of seriously mentally ill inmates and widespread use of segregation to house prisoners who are receiving services in jail rather than a hospital.
The research report from Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center indicates that 95.7 percent of the jails have some inmates with a serious mental illness, with 49 of the facilities reporting that 16 percent or more of their prisoners have serious behavioral issues.
In a recent telephone conference with media to discuss the report, authors of the research project shared their findings. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, noted that a critical shortage of psychiatric beds has forced jails into becoming de facto mental health facilities.
"There are one million seriously mentally people living in the community who 50 years ago would be in the hospital," said Torrey.
Without proper treatment, the sickest and most vulnerable end up in bad, places, said Torrey. An estimated 350,000 mentally ill people live in jail and 200,000 call the streets their home, he said.
As has been widely reported over the past two years, McLean County is no exception to the national trend, said Sheriff Jon Sandage.
The practice of holding seriously mentally ill inmates in the booking area has not changed, said the sheriff.
"It's not ideal, but it's the only option we have," said Sandage.
In some cases, the inmates' needs for treatment exceed what the jail can handle.
So far in 2016, seven people have been transferred to McFarland Mental Health Center — four were deemed unfit to stand trial and three who were found not guilty by reason of insanity. The average wait time for a bed at McFarland is 48 days, according to jail data.
The planned expansion of the jail with a mental health unit will address many of the issues outlined in the national survey, noted Sandage.
The $45 million project "will give the opportunity to provide a safe and secure environment and one that is conducive to people getting better," he said.
The sheriff and jail staff will travel to several locations in the Midwest in the next several weeks to tour facilities that have completed mental health units.
The expansion project is expected to be completed in early 2018.