Annenberg Radio

A close look at mental illness in Los Angeles County jails

Offenders in jail may commit crimes because of their mental health issues. Is jail truly the best place for them?

There is a growing percentage of people with mental illness in Los Angeles County jails.


Offenders in jail may commit crimes because of their mental health issues.

Dan Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice in Detroit and expert witness for jail suicides, says about 65% of people incarcerated have mental health issues.

DAN KENNEDY: Mentally ill people, for example, they commit ten percent of all homicides in the United States. They constitute probably 25% of people who are shot by police.

Since this demographic is not mentally stable enough to follow laws, they end up in jail. He says that mentally ill inmates are at a disadvantage in the system because they are unable to obey rules.

KENNEDY: They don’t understand the need for these kind of rules and very often violate them., so they have a rough way to go in jail. They have, I think, even worse way to go in the streets — when, you know, a generation ago they would be in a hospital.

And Kennedy says, jail is not the place to care for these inmates.

KENNEDY: You have good people trying to do a job that they’re not really sufficiently resourced to do. Remember, it’s a jail it’s not a hospital, and the number one consideration in a jail has to be security.

He continues.

KENNEDY: So it’s a big problem, and it’s not made any better by closing down the mental hospitals or making it more difficult to hospitalize people who are in need of care.

Matthew Motley is a forensic psychiatrist for LA County and a clinical assistant professor at the USC Keck School. He says the first few days of incarceration are a period of high risk for inmates.

MATTHEW MOTLEY: Also, there are these discrete other times, potentially when somebody else somebody might be at also an elevated risk of suicide due to, for example, receiving what they perceive to be bad news from a lawyer or being told that by potentially a significant other or a relative about a breakup or a death.

Motley says the reason mental healthcare can be ineffective for inmates is the confidentiality agreement.

MOTLEY: If somebody who is incarcerated tells their psychiatrist that they are planning an escape, for example, or that know about something that might jeopardize the health of either or other inmates or staff.

Motley adds that these medications can be abused in a correctional setting.

MOTLEY: So there are some medications that have, you know, very low potential for abuse are not typically abused outside of a correctional setting that are abused in a correctional setting and can be, you know, therefore dangerous for people and for patients in a correctional setting.

Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles is the nation’s largest mental health facility. There are about 2800 inmates... all struggling with mental illness.