The mentally ill in Idaho’s prisons are being shortchanged in treatment by the rift between the Correction and Health and Welfare departments, says an expert monitoring the state’s programs.
It is tragic some of these people are being recycled through the prisons, said Linda Hatzenbuehler, chairwoman of the state’s Mental Health Planning Council and dean of the Idaho State University College of Health Professions.
They commit crimes after being released without adequate treatment of their conditions, she said.
The chief psychologist for the Department of Correction, Dave King, estimates up to 350 of the state’s 4,000-plus prisoners have major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“The two agencies are fighting over limited state resources and cooperation has ceased,” Hatzenbuehler recently told a legislative committee. “The Department of Correction is not equipped to deal with them and the Department of Health and Welfare considers them no longer within their treatment purview.”
Roseanne Hardin of Health and Welfare said the friction between the two departments is an outgrowth of the state’s elimination of mental illness as a defense to a criminal charge 15 years ago.
State Hospital South at Blackfoot was responsible for mentally ill people who were convicted of a crime before the law was changed, said Hardin, administrator for the department’s Family and Community Services.
Health and Welfare is not equipped to handle mentally ill individuals from the criminal justice system, she said.
“Both agencies have an understanding of what the issues are,” she said. “Do we have a well thought-out solution? No, we don’t.”
Former Attorney General David Leroy, who authored the law, does not think it is to blame.
“Unfortunately, Health and Welfare and the Department of Correction have to make hard funding choices and mental health always has been a poor stepchild at the public funding trough,” he said.
Health and Welfare is reluctant to have mentally ill people who are potentially dangerous at either State Hospital South or State Hospital North at Orofino, King said.
There are 45 beds for the mentally ill in the maximum-security prison near Boise and there are about 150 inmates with severe problems in the facility, King said.
Each prison has a part-time consulting psychiatrist and medication is the primary treatment, he said.
The Correction Department has four full-time mental health staffers, whose numbers have remained constant despite the rising inmate population, he noted.
“We provide a basic level of service,” King said. “We really don’t have specialized treatment services like a free-world psychiatric hospital.”