New Report Sheds Light on Texas Jail Deaths Linked to Mental Illness, Calls for Reforms

PRESS RELEASE, November 15, 2016

Media Contact: Ranjana Natarajan, Director, Civil Rights Clinic, University of Texas School of Law, rnatarajan@law.utexas.edu, 512-232-7222 (work)

Subject Area Experts:
Diana Claitor, Texas Jail Project, 512-983-3446.
Dr. Lynda Frost, Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, 512-232-6287.
Greg Hansch, National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas, 908-229-7082.
Kathryn Lewis, Disability Rights Texas, 512-970-5451.

AUSTIN, Texas – When Texas county jail officials and staff fail to properly respond to inmates with mental health needs, the results can be fatal, a new report from the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic reveals. When jails fail to provide needed mental health services and medications, or fail to detect and respond to heightened suicide risk, or subject inmates with mental illness to unsupported withdrawal from their medications, people in jail can die.

The report, Preventable Tragedies: How to Reduce Mental Health-Related Deaths in Texas Jails, tells the stories of ten Texans who died unexpectedly while in county jail because of neglect or treatment failures. These Texans, who were held in small and mid-size county jails, all were coping with mental disorders. Their stories provide insights into much-needed jail safety reforms that can save lives.

The report also outlines twelve widely-accepted recommendations for jail safety reforms. Among them are proposals to: 1) divert more low-risk arrestees who need mental health treatment out of jail and into treatment; 2) implement better measures to prevent suicide, including stronger screening, safe housing, effective observation, and referral to treatment; 3) ensure inmates’ access to previously prescribed medications, implement peer support programs, and ensure supported withdrawal from medications and other substances to prevent sickness or death; and 4) prevent excessive uses of force, seclusion, and restraint against inmates with mental illness.

“People who pose little risk of danger and who need mental health care should be placed in community-based treatment, not jail,” said Ranjana Natarajan, lead author of the report. “These tragic stories also show us that jails must do more to prevent harm to inmates with mental disorders and get them appropriate treatment inside jail.”

Some studies estimate that in the nation’s jails, 1 in 7 men and 1 in 3 women suffer from serious mental illness. Over 70 percent of people in jails who have serious mental illness also suffer from co-occurring substance use disorders. Despite this, studies show that between 83 and 89 percent of people in jails and prisons do not receive adequate care.

A downloadable PDF version of the report is available at: http://links.utexas.edu/gzedra

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