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Mental illness ‘is not a problem that we can arrest ourselves out of’

When Alabama closed a regional hospital, the warden of Metro Jail says that the population of people with mental illness doubled at their facility. Trey Oliver says they often see the same people over and over again, people who should have a different kind of around-the-clock care. Oliver gives his Brief But Spectacular take on why incarceration can’t solve mental illness and life at his jail.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last week, our Brief But Spectacular segment focused on mental health from the perspective of a parent whose son was failed by legal and mental health systems in Washington state.

    Tonight, we hear from the warden of Metro County Jail in Mobile, Alabama, to get his take on how the mental health crisis affects his operation.

  • Trey Oliver:

    With our tongue in our cheek, we look at inmates sometimes and say, listen, life here is not great. This is not a resort, it's not a hotel, it's not a retreat, it's not Burger King. You don't get it your way, and we do not want you to come back.

    So, we preface everything by saying, this is less-than-ideal situations.

    The difference between a prison and a jail is, essentially, in a prison, you are serving out your sentence that a judge has handed down. For the most part, our population is here awaiting to go to trial.

    The average stay for an inmate here at Metro Jail would be about 17 days. Now, that is misleading when you first consider it, because we have inmates that literally have been here for four-and-a-half years awaiting to go to trials. And, typically, that would be facing a murder trial.

    Working in any jail this size is a very hostile work environment, sometimes worse than a prison, because, in a prison, the inmates are settled. We have court appearances, visitation, church services. So there's a lot of activity.

    This facility was originally designed for less than 1,200 inmates. However, on a daily basis, we will have way over 1,500. Sometimes, we will have four or five, six and seven inmates in a cell designed for two people.

    We see inmates return on a very regular basis. Recidivism is probably around 50 to 60 percent. I try to, at least on a weekly basis, just walk through the jail. They want my time, they want my attention, and they will flag me down and ask me questions.

  • Man:

    We're fighting five men to a cell around here. Toilet is messed up.

  • Trey Oliver:

    Well, some places got seven men to a cell.

  • Man:

    Yes, sir. Absolutely.

  • Trey Oliver:

    Consider yourself lucky.

    Obviously, in a hostile work environment like this, we don't have people knocking down our door to work for us. So we always are short-staffed. And, sometimes, you're looking at one floor officer will be responsible for anywhere from 150 to 300 individuals.

    The mentally ill poses a number of problems for us. We feel very strongly that anyone suffering from a serious mental illness shouldn't be in a county jail. However, that happens on a regular basis. Because the state hospital is so backed up, there's no place for these people to go.

    When Alabama closed our only regional hospital, we saw an immediate doubling of our mental health population. We will see the same mentally ill person arrested for the same charge in the same location by the same police officer three, four and five times.

    This is not a problem that we can arrest ourselves out of. They need to be in a facility to where they can receive around-the-clock care. Whoever was behind the closing of the mental health hospitals, if they thought that was a good idea, I challenge them on that.

    They were concerned at the time that the mentally ill were being warehoused in these hospitals. Well, I got news for everybody. The mentally ill are now being warehoused in county jails across this country.

    My name is Trey Oliver, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on life here at Metro Jail in Mobile, Alabama.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we thank you for that perspective.

    Tonight's Brief But Spectacular was produced in collaboration with Jason Johnson. He's a reporter for Lagniappe. That's a weekly paper in Mobile, Alabama.

    You can find a special episode with Johnson on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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