Sheriff: Mentally ill inmates are overrunning county jails

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ATHENS, Ala. - There is a problem lurking in local jails across the state; but those working in them, say it’s going unnoticed.

“If it comes from a jail, I don't know people will actually listen, because jail is associated with criminals,” said Tammy Wadell, Operations Lieutenant for the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office.

But what if some of those behind bars shouldn’t be there?

“Some days we may have one every day.” Thousands of people in Alabama depend on services aimed at helping the mentally ill. But currently, not enough facilities are available. So they end up in jail, “...and then we end up caring for them,” said Wadell.

It’s a growing problem across the state, according to the Department of Mental Health. They've faced several years of budget crisis, which forced them to close down three facilities in 2011 and 2012.  North Alabama Regional closed in June.

“Most people don't really know how big of a problem it is unless they have a family member suffering from it," said Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.

Wadell says that's because the family of the mentally ill are typically the ones who call to have them picked up. “The offense might be a disorderly conduct or something where the family wasn't able to control them."

And then they become Wadell’s concern.  “Basically we’re bringing them in here and treating them from a medical standpoint of just doing some type of restraint to get them on a daily basis of getting their meds back in their system,” said Wadell.

But having these individuals poses a safety problem. "A county jail isn't really designed to deal with your seriously mental individuals. We’ve got to constantly make sure we're keeping them segregated from the other inmates, for their protection as well as the protection of the other inmates," said Blakely.

Wadell deals with these inmates and says there is no reasoning with them, because many times they don't have the ability to rationalize. “They may throw their food tray back at you, they make take waste and throw at you. This is something we deal with constantly,” said Wadell.

Wadell says they’re not able to give the inmates the medical care they really need, and once the inmate is regulated they release them, only to have them return when they stop their medication again. She says it’s a vicious cycle. “And it's going to continue as long as there is a failed system,” said Wadell.

She says if more facilities were available, they could get many of these people the help they need, and keep them out of the jails. “It’s sad, but it looks like our population may increase,” said Wadell.

We took a look at the state budgets from 2013 and 2014, which showed a very slight increase in funding.  Sheriff Blakely says much more is needed and the only way to fix the problem is for lawmakers to bite the bullet and fork out the money to provide the care and facilities needed for mental patients.

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