His name is Steven, county officials tell usthe lean young
man who sits alone on the floor, cross-legged and naked. We can't
hear him; he's enclosed in a cell of thick plexiglass. But his lips
move. He gestures vigorously and and talks as if to the ceiling.
"The other day he was banging on the windows and basically...having
an outburst," says Sergeant Ron Riordan, our guide on a tour
of the Hennepin County Jail in Minneapolis. Steven is "not
somebody that could be out in any sort of general population environment
because the other inmates would pick on him."
Steven also tried to hang himself. That explains his nakedness.
"We restrict the inmate's clothing because he was tying it
around his neck," Riordan explains.
At the Hennepin County Jail, as at most others in the country,
large and small, coping with mental illness has become routine.
Sergeant Riordan oversees the intake process, where new inmates51,000
a year, on averageare searched and signed in. "During that time [we]
also ask the inmate a bunch of medical questions: Have any history of psychological
problems? Ever tried to harm or kill yourself? Taken any psychiatric medications?
Those types of things."
The jail has nurses on staff 24 hours a day. Psychologists visit
several times a week. The special set of isolation cells where Steven
is being held is for inmates who've behaved aggressively or "shown
a potential to be highly suicidal," Riordan explains.
Steven was arrested for trespassing, we learn later. That's a charge
that usually leads to little or no jail time. In Steven's case,
his attorneys argue he's incompetent to stand trial, so he'll spend
six weeks in jail waiting for a hearing. (Eventually he'll be declared
incompetent and released.)
The Justice Department says mentally ill inmates generally serve
longer sentences than those without mental disorders because they're
more likely to break rules or get in fights.
As in early 19th-Century America, jails and prisons now function
as the nation's asylums. The Justice Department estimates one in
six inmates across the country has a severe mental illness. Most
are locked up for relatively minor offenses. Many cycle in and out
of jail repeatedly.
Locked Up and Psychotic