Without Adequate Beds, Pennsylvania's Mentally Ill Often Languish In Jail

By McCarton Ackerman 10/12/16

The wait for treatment can be fatal in some instances.

Without Adequate Beds, Pennsylvania's Mentally Ill Often Languish In Jail

Hundreds of Pennsylvanians who have been ordered by judges to psychiatric facilities have instead been redirected to jail due to long waiting lists.

Because Pennsylvania closed most of its state mental hospitals without providing alternatives, jails have become way stations for this population, the Morning Call reports. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year over this issue, has cited waits of a year or more for defendants with mental health issues who were ordered to treatment at state mental hospitals.

One of these inmates is 24-year-old Travis Kutz, who was arrested in May 2015 after breaking into his father’s house in Bangor. Kutz hears several voices in his head and believes tiny robots have been implanted in his skin to control him. A Northampton County judge declared him incompetent to stand trial and ordered him to be transferred to Norristown State Hospital, but he is still waiting for a bed to open up.

The long wait for treatment can be fatal in some instances. The ACLU lawsuit cited the case of a Philadelphia inmate who committed suicide while behind bars, and another who was murdered while waiting for a placement.

"The system is failing because we don't have the beds that we need," Kutz's public defender, Syzane Arifaj, told the Morning Call. "He really needs the highest level of care, but those beds are just so severely limited."

A settlement between the state and the ACLU was made this past January, with Pennsylvania agreeing to try to reducing wait times for beds by investing more resources into the mental health system. However, only two state mental hospitals can properly house defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial, but have just 236 forensic beds combined between them.

Meanwhile, the current wait list is 252 people as of late last month, up by 32 from when the settlement was made.

Although some of the inmates who have been deemed incompetent will never be set free due to committing crimes such as murder, many of them are in jail for much smaller crimes such as shoplifting and likely would have been set free by now if not for their mental illness. They often require isolated cells and heightened security due to their condition, costing taxpayers $108 per day while being jailed.

More importantly, without any form of adequate care behind bars, their condition continues to get worse.

"A jail is the single worst place you could think of to provide someone mental health services," said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. “It just simply in every way is the wrong process.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.