Roy Exum: Those We All Ignore

Sunday, December 17, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I was in the midst of my “morning readings” the other day when a number leapt off my computer screen. Hark, heralded angels, did you know in the state of Iowa there are two (2) inpatient psychiatry beds for every 100,000 people? I’m not the best with percentages but there are some people in Iowa who aren’t getting the help they need. There are roughly 3.2 million people living in Iowa and two beds per 100K is ludicrous. That’s also insane, crazy and damning.

But, wait, Tennessee has over twice the citizens of Iowa – we’re right at 6.71 million – and according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, we have four times the state psychiatric beds Iowa does. Yep, we have 8.5 beds for every 100,000 people. Is that great or what? At least we ain’t Iowa. In total, there were 562 inpatient psychiatry beds in Tennessee in 2016, this down 52 from 2010, and it is estimated that is about 17 percent of what Tennessee actually needs.

Of the beds available in Tennessee, 150 of them are at our Moccasin Bend Hospital and local law enforcement officials tell me the only way a patient can even get a look-see is to be “momently (at any moment) homicidal or suicidal”. The snag there is that in the United States today, the typical wait for a “psych bed” in our 50 states is an average of 71 days.

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* -- Jamycheal Mitchell died of a heart attack after starving himself in a Virginia jail cell for three months while waiting for a state hospital bed. He was 24. Mitchell was arrested in April 2015 for stealing $5.05 worth of snacks from a 7-Eleven. In his delusional state, he believed it was a relative’s store. Mitchell stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia. After his arrest, he was evaluated, found incompetent to stand trial and court ordered into a Virginia state hospital for restoration of his competency. Because no bed was available, he remained in jail, waiting, until he died. (Starving to death in a cell has ceased to be novel.)

* -- Raleigh Priester, a U.S. Army veteran with schizophrenia and a long history of arrests and hospitalizations, died in a Broward County, Florida, jail after losing half of his body weight over a five-month period.        

* -- Michael Kerr died of dehydration during solitary confinement in North Carolina in 2014. One month after his death, Virginia corrections official told the Washington Post that they were holding 89 just like him who were waiting for a “psych bed.”

-- Source: Treatment Advocacy Center.

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On June 5, 2013, an editorial in the Chattanooga Times Free Press read, “When 45 percent of the Hamilton County Jail's 500 inmates are on prescribed psychotropic drugs and are deemed mentally ill, we should know we have a problem. And it's a statewide concern. Tennessee has failed to help take care of the mentally ill and their families -- and sometimes their victims.”

Today – four years later – we still have 45 percent of those incarcerated in Hamilton County on psychotropic drugs. Just the drugs cost a quarter-million dollars a year and to house our current prisoners costs Hamilton County taxpayers $85,000 each day.

Two of Chattanooga’s most philanthropic businesses, Blue CrossBlue Shield and CHI Memorial Hospital, have just given Sheriff Jim Hammond grants of $25,000 each so he can move toward far better and more supervised care of the mentally challenged clogging our jails.

The sheriff told the County Commission, “I’ve got some of the best jail employees I have ever had but not a one knows anything about treating mental illness. I’ve put together a committee of community leaders and right after the first of the year we will launch an ambitious effort to do far better for individuals who need the proper help.”

In the meanwhile, we as a nation mourn the fact that 15 states other than Tennessee have single-digit “psych beds” per 100,000 state residents -- Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin.

I love this from Jim Franklin, who guides the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association: “The (Department of Human Services) commissioner is telling us they no longer can comply with the law (lack of money), and that leaves us with an interesting dilemma. Do we hold inmates illegally in jail, or is the commissioner failing in her public duty and violating a judge’s order? The victim in all this is the person with mental illness sitting in jail.” (July 21, 2015)

But there is another equation that must be factored. The Treatment Advocacy Center has discovered that 50 percent of the available state beds hold forensic patients, and of that number, a full half have been found mentally insane by judges and the courts and will never go to trial. That bed is taken for life.

So, in reality, Tennessee has four (4) psychiatric inpatient beds per every 100,000 people in the state. Each person is somebody’s son or daughter. Each person is a child of God. Each person needs and deserves America’s help.

“And what you do to the least of them you do unto me.”

* * *

WHAT CAN YOU DO? – Write the governor, your state legislator and any candidates you know who are running for any office in the 2018 election.

In 2010 Sheriff Hammond created a 501(c)(3) foundation that can accept donations to the Sheriff’s Department. Anyone wishing to do so should send a contribution to The Aegis Law Enforcement Foundation, c/o Sheriff Jim Hammond, 600 Market Street, Chattanooga TN 37402.

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