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Horrific Conditions in Los Angeles County Jail

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Horrific Conditions in Los Angeles County Jail - by Stephen Lendman

In July 2008, the Southern California ACLU released a "Report on Mental Health Issues at Los Angeles County" Jail by Dr. Terry Kupers, a practicing psychiatrist, an expert on long-term isolated prison confinement and correctional mental health issues. He's also written numerous articles on these topics, and been an expert witness on the mental health crisis behind bars, what he wrote about in his book "Prison Madness."

In May, he toured the LA County Jail system where most inmates aren't convicted and are awaiting trial - Men's Central Jail (MCJ), Twin Towers 1 & 2 (TT 1 & 2), and the Inmate Reception Center (IRC). He interviewed 18 prisoners in private, confidential settings; others in more casual, cell-front ones; and discussed issues with mental health and custody staff.

As in all prisons nationwide, many LA County inmates suffer "serious mental illness." Incarceration exacerbates it. They need treatment, but aren't getting it.

Besides prison confinement harm, state mental hospital deinstitutionalization took hold in the 1980s, part of Reagan Revolution policies that whatever government can do, business does better, so let it. As a result, large numbers of seriously ill patients were discharged, based on studies indicating community care was superior to state facilities. The consequences were predictable. The promise was never realized because of budget cuts, unaffordable housing, and other priorities.

In 1955, state and VA psychiatric hospitals had about 550,000 patients. In 2008, there were less than 60,000, but given constraints today on budget strapped states and communities, the numbers are likely lower and dropping.

Yet according to a study by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, over a million individuals suffer from significant mental illness in jails and prisons. With 20,000 detainees, some call the LA County Jail system the largest psychiatric hospital in the country (the Men's Central Jail has 5,000), but, like elsewhere, treatment there's not forthcoming.

Correctional setting mental illness factors:

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"are complex, including shortcomings in our public mental health systems, the tendency for post-Hinckley criminal courts to give relatively less weight to psychiatric testimony, the incarceration of large numbers of drug offenders including those with dual diagnoses (substance abuse and mental illness), and the growing tendency for local governments to incarcerate homeless people for a variety of minor crimes."

As a result, the prevalence of prison mental illness is high and rising - about 15 - 30% according to national epidemiological studies. The 2006 Special Report from the Federal Bureau of Prison Statistics titled, "Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates," confirms a high, unprecedented mental illness population behind bars, concluding that 64% of jail inmates suffer significantly - based on structured interviews, "not necessarily clinical diagnoses."

A comparable 1999 study estimated 19%. The 2006 one concludes that previously homeless inmates are twice as likely to be ill, the result of living on streets or in unfavorable environments, unconducive to good mental health.

Other epidemiological studies concur with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and despite the prevalence of inmate illness, few prisoners get help, what's provided is inadequate, and medications only for many are stressed. Even then, they're only given to symptomatic inmates, then withdrawn when they abate, when it's essential they be continued. Otherwise, those in need aren't helped.

Overcrowding and Few Inmate Programs - A Serious Problem

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When the 1970s prison population was much smaller, studies showed overcrowding caused violence, mental illness, and suicides. Today it's much worse. "One ha(s) only to tour a jail or prison to understand how violence and madness were bred by the crowding."

Imagine a small dormitory expanded to house 150 prisoners - the situation in LA County Men's Central Jail with bunk beds lined up in rows. "A prisoner cannot move more than a few feet away from a neighbor, and lines form at the pay telephones and the urinals."

It's the same with four men crammed into small cells with barely enough room to get off bunks for any reason. The cells have no chairs, desks or any space but bunks to sit or lie on. It's enough to fray anyones nerves, but with "tough men" in small spaces, altercations follow, then disciplinary action, greater anger, and inevitable mental illness for many.

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I was born in 1934, am a retired, progressive small businessman concerned about all the major national and world issues, committed to speak out and write about them.

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