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Column: Warehousing mentally ill in jails bad idea

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INDIANAPOLIS — Marion County Sheriff John Layton says it plain.

The way we’re dealing with mentally ill people in Indiana and America in many ways is at best short-sighted and at worst dangerous.

We’re talking about the connections between mental health and the explosions of violence that have dotted the land. In the weeks since the mass murder of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much of the national discussion about how to prevent such tragedies has focused on what we’re doing in regard to people who suffer from mental illness.

Layton, a Democrat, says there is a connection between the somewhat fractured way we deal with mental illness and crime. He points out that 40 percent of the people locked up in the Marion County Jail have to take medication to deal with some form of mental health disorder — and that’s the case at most jails across the country.

Layton says locking up mentally ill people places tremendous stresses on the system. He says that most deputies and other law enforcement officials aren’t trained to deal with the challenges handling mentally ill prisoners presents. Layton’s deputies not only often do not know how to help mentally ill prisoners, but they also can’t anticipate or minimize the damage those prisoners can do to themselves and others.

“We’re not doctors,” Layton says, and adds that more training for law enforcement personnel would help, but that costs money.

Then he says that putting the mentally ill in jail right now is little better than warehousing them.

I ask Nakaisha Tolbert-Banks of Mental Health America of Greater Indianapolis if putting mentally ill people behind bars makes things better or worse for them — and for the rest of us.

She shakes her head.

“It makes it worse,” she says.

Tolbert-Banks adds that locking up mentally ill people without doing anything to deal with their mental health issues doesn’t do anything to help them or the situation. The best scenario in that situation is that locking them up delays dealing with their problems. The worst case scenario is that jail time adds new stresses that exacerbate their problems.

The key, she says, is getting mentally ill people the treatment they need.

But that, too, costs money.

Dr. Jeff Kellums, the medical director for the Midtown Mental Health Center in Indianapolis, says that he and other professionals working with the mentally ill labor tirelessly to help their patients. He wants everyone to know that medical personnel will knock themselves out trying to work with anyone dealing with a mental health issue.

But when I ask him if he and those dealing with mental illness have enough money to do what they need to do, Kellums also purses his lips and shakes his head.

“No, we don’t,” he says.

Layton says that what we really need is a more sophisticated system — one that allows law enforcement and medical personnel to work more closely together. He says that, too often, family members will allow a mentally ill child, spouse or sibling to get pulled into the legal system because they’re exhausted, desperate and feel that they have no other option. He says there ought to be ways to get mentally ill people the treatment they need before they get sucked too far into the legal system where the problem only will get worse.

But that, too, would cost money.

And that brings Layton to his big point.

“I keep hearing about this $2 billion surplus that we’re supposed to have,” the sheriff says, making reference to the state of Indiana’s budget.

Much of that surplus, he says, comes from ignoring needs, from deferring dealing with problems and from refusing to meet continuing challenges.

Like figuring out how to treat the seriously mentally ill in an effective and, dare we say it, sane way before they do damage to themselves.

Or others.

That prompts the sheriff to ask a question.

If Indiana’s surplus comes at the cost of denying troubled people the help they need and adding both cost and risk to the rest of us, Sheriff John Layton asks:

“Do we really have a surplus?”

It’s a good question.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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