Over the 21 years Sen. Cathy Osten worked for the Department of Correction, mental illness was so pervasive among Connecticut’s inmates that it was not unusual for her to hear from families who were grateful their loved ones were incarcerated because they were better off behind bars than on the street.
Such conversations helped the Sprague Democrat identify a too-common issue in Connecticut and across the country — that many incarcerated people wind up behind bars because they’re not getting the psychiatric care they need in their communities.
“When people don’t have access to the supports they need, they end up interacting with different systems, whether it’s emergency rooms, inpatient psychiatric or corrections,” said Kathy Flaherty, co-chair of the Keep the Promise Coalition, a group that advocates for Connecticut residents impacted by mental health conditions. “We are very much concerned when people with mental health conditions are not accessing the supports they need in the community and then end up interacting with the criminal legal system as a result of behavior that may be attributable to their condition, yet society has chosen to deem criminal acts.”
Osten shares those concerns.
Earlier this month, she requested the state Sentencing Commission identify how many people incarcerated in Connecticut have been diagnosed with a mental illness, examine whether those inmates serve longer portions of their sentence than those who do not have a mental illness, and determine whether mentally ill inmates participate in programs that ease the transition back to their communities at the same rate as inmates who are not mentally ill.
Osten, who worked as a corrections officer and lieutenant for DOC, proposed a bill during the last legislative session that would have created a task force to study these topics, but the measure never received a hearing.
“By identifying the number of [mentally ill] people we have who are incarcerated, identifying what their needs are and identifying what supportive services are necessary, then we would be able to mitigate people from becoming incarcerated, and mitigate recidivism,” Osten said.
The Department of Correction scores each inmate’s need for mental health services on a 1-5 scale. Those ratings are not based on a diagnosis since two people with the same illness might require different levels of treatment to manage their symptoms. The scores are also fluid; they change over time, as an inmate’s needs change. Unlike the figures Osten is asking for, they are not indicative of a chronic illness.
“The department score is more to see if they’re in crisis or not, or if they might need additional help,” Osten said. “It decides what facility they would go to.”
Garner Correctional Institution houses male inmates with significant mental health issues, and whose scores on DOC’s scale are particularly high. Staff provide mental health treatment through individualized treatment plans and offer group and one-on-one programming and therapy that helps inmates to return to either general prison population or to their communities.
There were 555 inmates at Garner on Aug. 31, according to the state’s Open Data Portal. Garner’s population was 4% of Connecticut’s total prison population that day. Osten suspects between 30 and 35% of the state’s inmates have a diagnosed mental illness.
“That’s far more than would be housed in Garner,” she said, underscoring that her data point would represent a different population than those who were assigned high mental health scores by the DOC.
Flaherty said it is important to first identify the number of people with mental illness currently living in Connecticut prisons.
“You can’t make changes in things unless you have a grasp on accurate numbers regarding what you’re dealing with,” she said.
Flaherty warned of inmates who “slip through the cracks” because they haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness, who had been on a waitlist to see a provider or who hadn’t previously sought treatment before becoming incarcerated. She also said individualized context is key to understanding each inmate’s mental health.
“I think if we’re not also examining other things that go on in those individuals lives, it becomes very easy to blame it on a mental health condition, as opposed to people who are dealing with the after effects of various kinds of trauma, and of every day as a person of low income in this state,” Flaherty said.
Sentencing Commission Executive Director Alex Tsarkov said it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to produce a report prior to the 2020 legislative session that begins in February, but said the commission could release information as it becomes available.
“In the coming months, we’ll be discussing the research questions and scope of this work,” Tsarkov said in a statement. “Certainly, any time that people with mental illness end up incarcerated instead of in treatment … it is extremely expensive, a tremendous burden on correctional staff, with often very little public safety value to it. We look forward to delving into these issues further to produce a report to Sen. Osten and the legislature.”