Mentally ill now kept in prisons, advocate says

Numbers far outstrip hospitals

Staff WriterOctober 13, 2010 

— The number of people with serious mental illness in North Carolina's prisons and jails is now more than six times higher than those in state psychiatric hospitals, a new study says.

The analysis, by the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is expected to be the focus of an event today at the legislature. The advocacy group hopes to call attention to the pending closure of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, which will reduce the number of state psychiatric hospitals from four to three.

Lanier Cansler, the state's secretary of Health and Human Services, has said there was not enough money allocated by legislators to keep Dix open. Legislators, meanwhile, say Cansler didn't request any money for operating Dix.

There were 1,904 inpatient hospital beds in the state-run system in 2001, the year policy makers embarked on an ambitious plan to reform the state's mental health system by focusing on caring for people through community-based, private providers. There are now about 770 inpatient beds in the state, a reduction of 60 percent. Patients routinely languish for days in emergency rooms and crisis centers waiting for a spot to open up in a state hospital.

Meanwhile, a 2007 study by research and planning staff at the N.C. Department of Correction put the number of severely mentally ill inmates at 5,513, a number growing by an estimated 400 each year.

"The reality is the state has replaced beds in healing institutions with beds in penal institutions," Gerry Akland, the president of Wake NAMI, said in a written statement. "No additional hospitals or beds should be closed until there is a workable mental health plan and adequate funding from the state."

Dix is set to close all but a handful of treatment beds by the end of the year. But across Western Boulevard at Central Prison, the state is nearing completion of a $151 million hospital that will have 216 beds for inmates with serious mental illnesses. Sixty mental health beds are being built at the Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

Renee McCoy, a DHHS spokeswoman, repeated Tuesday that there is not enough money to keep Dix open.

"The position of DHHS has not changed in response to the concerns expressed from any organization or group," McCoy said in an e-mail. "The issue is a matter of funding, as Secretary Cansler has stated earlier in response to the concerns."

Akland said the reduction of treatment options for people in crisis leads to the increase of people with mental illness in prison, where it is more expensive for taxpayers to care for them in the long run.

"It is inhuman to deny treatment to helplessly ill individuals, causing them to become incarcerated," Akland said. "Prisons are not therapeutic or rehabilitative environments for people with mental illness."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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