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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

Bill to restrict isolation cells fails

But lawmakers move to reduce jail time for mentally ill

The isolation cell in the Pike County jail in Pittsfield, where mentally ill inmates deemed dangerous to themselves or others are confined.
PHOTO by Bruce Rushton

 

The state House of Representatives last week passed a bill designed to expedite the transfer of mentally ill inmates from county jails to state mental health facilities.

But a bill that would restrict the use of isolation cells in local jails appears dead. The measure remained in committee as an April 28 deadline passed for the House to take action on bills sponsored by House members. Under the proposal, inmates could not be placed in isolation for more than 10 consecutive days or for more than 10 days over a 180-day period.

The bill restricting the use of isolation cells also would have affected state prisons. But county sheriffs lobbied hard against the measure, arguing that there is little else they can do with mentally ill inmates, including many who are supposed to be in mental health facilities but instead languish in jail.

“If all things were perfect, it might be a good bill,” said Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs Association. “When you have inmates with mental health problems who you cannot put in general population for their safety and other inmates’ safety, what do you do with them? You have to do something. … Quite frankly, the sheriffs contacted their state representatives and said, ‘This is a bad bill, and here’s why.’”

Randolph County Sheriff Shannon Wolff, who runs a 44-bed jail that sometimes has just one officer overseeing inmates, said that isolation cells and restraint chairs are an unfortunate necessity of running a small jail in a rural area.

“We’re not a mental health facility, we’re not set up to treat these people – it’s not fair to them, it’s not fair to us,” Wolff said. “We have to use isolation or restraint chairs if they’re violent with the staff or hurting themselves. We’re a small jail, and we just don’t have the resources to deal with it. … What’s the answer if you’ve got somebody in the jail who’s standing on top of the toilet and jumping off and trying to smash their head against a wall? It’s tough.”

In many cases, mentally ill inmates held in county jails aren’t supposed to be there, having been found unfit to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. Weeks or even months can pass before a defendant found mentally unfit to stand trial is transferred from jail to a state mental health facility, according to sheriffs and the Department of Human Services, which acknowledges a lack of bed space.

When an inmate is found unfit to stand trial, the state is supposed to take custody of the person and issue a report to the court within 30 days. In February, Sullivan said, there were 57 inmates on a waiting list, mostly people who had been found unfit to stand trial as opposed to having been found not guilty by reason of insanity. The average wait to get into a mental health facility was 47 days, he said.

Sheriffs say they fear that the problem will get worse, given that the Department of Human Services has turned 46 beds at the Elgin Mental Health Facility over to state inmates as part of a lawsuit settlement reached last year to improve treatment for mentally ill inmates in state prisons. Those beds, sheriffs say, are no longer available to prisoners from local jails.

Fed up with waiting for bed space in state mental health facilities, the Cook County sheriff’s office pushed a bill designed to expedite transfers. The bill passed the House last week and is now before the Senate.

The bill started out tough, giving sheriffs the authority to transfer inmates to the nearest DHS mental health facility, absent a go-ahead from DHS, within seven days of a finding that defendants were unfit to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The version that passed the House gives DHS 20 days to tell sheriffs where to take inmates who are unfit to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. If DHS fails to identify a mental health facility within 20 days, sheriffs are supposed to put DHS on notice that they will take defendants to the nearest facility. The department would then have two days to provide an estimated date for admission to a facility.

“It shortens the time frame,” says Cara Smith, policy chief for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “It requires the kind of collaboration that should be happening. It’s certainly not perfect.”

According to a DHS fiscal note, the bill wouldn’t have a financial impact on the department because defendants found fit to stand trial would be transferred out of mental health facilities to make room for defendants who are found unfit. The bill would require courts to order sheriffs to immediately return to jail defendants from mental health facilities who have been deemed by the department to have regained fitness to stand trial.

Via email, Meredith Krantz, DHS spokeswoman, wrote that the department must wait for judges to declare a defendant fit to stand trial before the person can be transferred from a mental health facility back to jail. Such rulings are supposed to be made within two weeks of DHS filing reports deeming defendants fit, but “it can often take longer for a variety of reasons,” Krantz wrote. The bill would allow DHS to return defendants to jail when the department, as opposed to a judge, deems they are fit, Krantz wrote, which should cut two or more weeks from they stay of any given defendant in a DHS facility and allow the department to treat 20 or more additional defendants each year.

Sullivan worries that DHS will send defendants back to jail who aren’t ready. “We’ve already had issues with that, where they’ve found them fit, and they bring them immediately back to jail,” Sullivan said. “They bring them back to our jails and within 48 hours, we have to call them again.”

Still, Sullivan is optimistic, and he predicts the bill will become law.

“It should shorten the stay significantly in county jails, which is good for the patient,” Sullivan said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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