County jail swells with mentally ill

MAYVILLE – Of the 259 inmates who occupy the Chautauqua County Jail, 129 were reported to have a mental illness.

From schizophrenia to bipolar and other depressive and personality disorders, mental health has become a shockingly recurring theme for those living behind bars. And worse, with an increasing number of individuals being incarcerated instead of diverted to a proper mental health facility, many in the community are left wondering if jail is the new – and perhaps, permanent – asylum for the county’s mentally ill.

“We’ve had people in the past that are so mentally ill that they’re not in touch with reality in any way, shape or form,” said Joseph Gerace, Chautauqua County sheriff. “This is not the appropriate place for them because we’re not equipped to handle (their conditions).”

The jail’s ability to treat mental illness is nothing short of limited, with only one psychiatrist and forensic mental health case manager – both contracted out by The Resource Center – on hand.

Yvonne Calcaterra, the aforementioned case manager, described how inmates receive a medical and mental health screening upon entering the jail. Those identified with disorders or suicidal tendencies are referred to her and subsequently referred – if necessary – to Dr. Caillean McMahon, the aforementioned psychiatrist, who visits the jail once a week and prescribes medications.

“The only thing we’re able to do is medication,” Calcaterra said. “What we lack is regular therapy. Someone who needs a counseling appointment every week or every other week … that’s not something we can accommodate.”

According to Gerace, a staggering $15,000 was spent for medications alone in February. While not exclusively for mental health conditions, the cost does suggest how an influx in mentally ill inmates, who do require psychotropic drugs frequently, can have a significant impact on the jail – and the county – budget.

“Getting (these individuals) into an appropriate facility is very difficult and takes an enormous amount of time,” Gerace said. “This is not just Chautauqua County crying out, it’s a national problem. With the deinstitutionalization of those suffering from mental illnesses, jails have become the largest mental health providers in the nation, and that’s not OK.”

Deinstitutionalization, or the movement of mentally ill patients from long-stay institutions into the community, has revealed an inverse relationship between jail and hospital populations.

Sixty years ago, nearly 600,000 mentally ill patients were being housed in psychiatric hospitals. By 2000, this number had dwindled to approximately 70,000.

Accordingly, a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that more than half of all prison and jail inmates in the country had a mental health problem.

“It’s definitely no secret that there’s been a decrease in facilities for individuals who have mental illness,” Calcaterra said. “Right now we have a lot of good outpatient services … but because of budget cuts, we don’t have as many inpatient services. You’ve got just Lake Shore and WCA, and Lake Shore is barely keeping afloat.”

While treatment courts and the Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene maintain that facilities are still accessible in the county, they acknowledge that individuals entangled in the criminal justice system may find it more difficult to gain access because of the nature of their individual crimes and other various legal proceedings.

“For somebody to come into our program, the district attorney (needs to have) worked with the defense attorney to negotiate a plea,” said Catherine Newton, Jamestown Treatment Court coordinator. “Whether they come into the program or not is partially a legal negotiation.”

With substance abuse, unemployment and other personal issues only exacerbating mental health further, some wonder if the mentally ill can ever truly steer clear of the criminal justice system.

“They sit in jail and are treated with what little we can do with the monies available to us,” Gerace said. “This isn’t something anybody wants to see happen.”