Mental health center to study treatment for prison population

Oversight officials find that illness, addiction hamper inmates' progress

March 01, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland School of Medicine yesterday established an unusual academic center designed to examine the problems of mental illness in the criminal justice system.

The Center for Behavioral Health, Justice & Public Policy, which was started with a $350,000 grant from the Baltimore office of financier George Soros' Open Society Institute, will conduct research and provide training on the mental health and addiction problems that afflict an estimated 16 percent of the nation's inmates.

The center's work begins as prisons around the country try to grapple with a growing population of people with multiple problems like drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and a history of suffering domestic abuse.

The tension between emphasizing treatment or punishment for those prisoners has long put mental health professionals and law enforcement at odds -- and left large cracks for some inmates to fall through.

"What happens now is there is a handoff and a disconnect," said Fred Osher, an associate professor of psychiatry at the memdical school who will direct the new center. "Their sentence ends, and they get a ticket back to their community."

In New York City, advocates for mentally ill inmates are suing the jail system, contending that officials have failed to plan for treatment after release.

Maryland figures show that many juveniles in the state's criminal justice system don't get the mental health treatment they need, particularly if they are black.

"People are just waking up to this, and psychiatrists in the community have been closing their eyes," said Terry Kupers, an Oakland, Calif., psychiatrist who wrote a book called "Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It."

The biggest problem, said Henry J. Steadman, director of a federally funded center that disseminates information about programs for people in the justice system, is that prisons aren't equipped to handle inmates who are both drug-addicted and mentally ill.

"Mental health and substance abuse don't work together," he said. "A major reason many of these people have repeatedly failed is that they need integrated systems that can deal with co-occurring disorders."

In adult jails, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has experimented with bridging the gap for mentally ill offenders in 22 county detention centers, including finding housing for ex-inmates where probation and parole agents can monitor their progress.

But the program does not operate in Baltimore, where, psychological services chief Stephen Berman estimates, 13 percent to 15 percent of the 90,000 people who pass through the detention system each year are mentally ill.

"If we don't get the neighborhood places and the outside places involved, the revolving door will continue," he said.

Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, said that's why the institute gave money to the University of Maryland center.

"We really want to cut down the number of people cycling through the system," she said.

Its faculty, to be made up of psychiatrists and correctional specialists, will develop training programs for Maryland correctional officers, judges and attorneys to help them recognize signs of behavioral disorders.

The center will open in May on the grounds of the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup, the state's only maximum security hospital.

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