Star Tribune editor: The mentally ill in Minnesota jails

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2013 - 12:03 AM

Our reporting reveals a system that's failing those who need its attention.

Whenever we write about the abuses and frailties of those housed in our public corrections systems, I often wonder how many readers really care. And yet modern-day society should be held accountable for how the least among us are treated.

That is especially true when dealing with the mentally ill, who often aren’t capable of helping themselves. In that regard, the state of Minnesota often fails woefully, as our front-page story today by Paul McEnroe and Glenn Howatt illustrates so clearly.

Minnesota, like most states across the country, shuttered its institutions for the mentally ill decades ago, with the promise that services would be provided in the community. Many of those services, especially for the severely ill, have failed to materialize. That leaves hundreds of mentally ill men and women to be warehoused in jails as institutions of last resort. Our reporting shows that 25 percent of those in some county jails at any given time have mental health issues.

It is a system that, by default, has turned mental illness into a crime. Even worse, as our story points out, the state then repeatedly fails to give the mentally ill the adequate medical care they need in a timely fashion, which can aggravate their conditions.

McEnroe first proposed a look at the intersection of the mentally ill and the criminal justice system at the end of last year. For most of this year, in between other beat reporting, he has visited jails and has talked to corrections officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and health care providers.

He and Howatt also have dug through hundreds of court records. Those documents sometimes illustrate in frightening detail the mental illnesses an inmate may have — and how such illnesses contribute to crimes, from the petty to the most violent.

McEnroe said he had a particular interest in examining how the mentally ill are cared for because of public attitudes regarding mental illness. “There is a stigma that is unfair. You can say what you want about people on street corners, or the exit ramps, but the fact is many are mentally ill, and we don’t want to confront the fact that promises for these people were broken and they have nothing else.”

It’s also not just the people you pass on the street who are hurt by the demise in our health care system for them. Mental illness affects an estimated 200,000 Minnesotans, touching thousands of ordinary families, and no walk of life is spared.

It is clear from our reporting that many judges, sheriffs and mental health professionals recognize the fact that our jails have become holding tanks for the mentally ill, and that there is deep frustration over the delays in treatment and the inability to change “the system.”

Star Tribune reporters will look at other aspects of this system’s failures through the rest of the year. It is a disturbing portrait, and I understand that many readers will want to look away. Nonetheless, if we don’t tell the story of the mentally ill, who will?

We hope that by shining a light on this dark corner of society, where the treatment of the mentally ill is sometimes shameful, Minnesota’s elected officials and other public servants will more fully understand the failures of the state’s health care systems — and maybe we will make a difference in the lives of those who cannot help themselves.

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Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @nancycbarnes.

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