There is a mental health crisis in our correctional facilities

Since taking office as Sheriff of Erie County, I have been amazed at the significant number of incarcerated individuals in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office who suffer from psychiatric and behavioral disorders. Approximately 57% of the total facility population has an active forensic mental health diagnosis.

These individuals rely heavily on medical and mental health programs, placing additional strain on the services provided in our facilities. Because of the limited mental health resources available in the community, many arrive with little or no treatment related to these conditions.

Prisons were built to house people who made bad choices and put our community at risk; they are not designed to care for large numbers of incarcerated persons with serious mental illness (SMI). These increased demands on prison management include longer stays with increased disruptive and aggressive behavior, which present unique challenges within prison settings.

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Additionally, incarcerated individuals with mental illness and substance abuse disorders present an even greater treatment challenge, requiring more intensive counseling, treatment, and monitoring by medical and security personnel.

Due to insufficient funding and the lack of available community resources, prisons and correctional facilities are often referred to today as “Modern Asylums”. As such, laws have been enacted at the state and federal levels to ensure that all individuals receive appropriate treatment for SMI while incarcerated. Unfortunately, it is difficult or impossible to effectively provide these additional services to our population within the limitations of outdated facilities.

Given the rise in mental health cases, the local medical community faces similar challenges. The lack of sufficient inpatient treatment facilities capable of managing these individuals delays proper treatment, further strains our already overburdened prison system and increases the risk to both inmates and staff. These risks include suicide threats or attempts, self-injurious behavior, and both physical and non-physical assaults on staff, such as exposure to urine or feces.

Many studies show that people diagnosed with SMI have higher rates of recidivism. This is the result of several factors, including unstable housing after release, unemployment, and limited community mental health resources. In addition, these individuals often fail to seek services when released from custody, resulting in restitution and reentry into the criminal justice system.

History shows that the criminal justice system has been more inclined to punish these individuals with mental illness than to provide the mental health services they need. Imagine if society locked up people with dementia or Parkinson’s disease. How long will it take state or local governments to pass reform legislation?

In closing, I want to emphasize the need for the local community to support my efforts to increase and modernize the services available to these incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness. The Erie County Sheriff’s Office’s duty to effectively and comprehensively treat individuals with SMI necessitates the construction of a modern correctional facility to meet the current and changing needs of our future population.

I strongly recommend increasing inpatient treatment options with our local partners and funding to support community treatment programs to ensure that this segment of the population rightfully receives the treatment they deserve.

John C. Garcia is the Erie County Sheriff.

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