North Carolina prison officials know the problem is broad in scope and expensive. They know also that inadequate treatment for mentally ill prisoners means those who are released will commit more crimes and be back, and that all other prisoners will be at risk if incarcerated with those suffering mental health problems. They know that makes prisons more dangerous.
So why, with experts and medical professional in virtual unanimous agreement, would prison officials’ request for $24 million to help with mental health care for prisoners over the next two years be cut in half by the House and by half again in the Senate?
It’s no mystery. Prisoners have few advocates, and they’re not the most appealing cause for which a lawmaker can stand and fight. Most citizens like their inmates out of sight and out of mind. The subject isn’t one many people like to discuss, even briefly.
And then something happens, like the mentally ill inmate who died of dehydration last year after being kept in solitary confinement. That case cost North Carolina $2.5 million in a settlement with the man’s estate. Then there were the two suicides over 16 months at Central Prison in Raleigh.
An independent psychiatrist, Jeffrey Metzner, has examined Unit One, a solitary confinement block at Central, and reported that nearly a third of the inmates in the unit were being treated for mental health issues. But he couldn’t get any of the changes he recommended implemented.
Prison officials acknowledge there are needs to protect mentally ill inmates from themselves and from hurting others, and importantly, to treat them and help them get better before they re-enter society.
But money always is a hangup, whether it’s following suggestions from consultants or getting those in need more treatment. It costs money, for instance, to find alternatives to solitary confinement, a circumstance that almost always makes mentally ill inmates more ill.
But that’s not smart savings. Mentally ill prisoners who are released are likely to continue the behavior that is a manifestation of their illnesses. Their crimes may get worse. In the end, that’s more expensive.