Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague (file photo) Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / file photo

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.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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  1. The idea is important. The concept is without a doubt valid, however, the issue at hand is not that an inmate with mental illness will have a longer sentence. The issue really to study is their recidivism rate. We have many pervasively mentally ill people in the prison I work in. Here in Connecticut the inmates who are mentally ill are cycled through over and over again, because of exactly what the senator is stating. They may or may not serve a longer sentence and that really tells us nothing statistically. The issue is they are repeatedly incarcerated when in reality some of this population need long term psychiatric care which is nonexistent EXCEPT for in the prison system. Talk about a travesty of justice. The mental health system in this country is beyond broken. The sentence a mentally ill prisoner may have could be short in duration, it may be for a simple issue of trespassing, the judge who might be familiar with the person, and will have them sent to the prison. A 54-56 D can be ordered to establish psychiatric competency and many inmates are traversed through a process of being psychiatrically paneled so that we can medicate them to sequester their symptoms and hopefully bring them to a level of functioning , that would be conducive to participation in the theoretical system of therapeutic support. I admire the senator for her enthusiastic cause, but one does not need a study, just speak to the staff, who struggle to provide the care to his population and one will actualize all the information needed to understand we are drowning, in expense, in poor outcomes, in recidivism, in social despair for this who are also surfing with the mentally ill person. There is no where to send these folks except back into the streets.

    1. Hi mac, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  2. I advocate for patients who suffer with inherited acute porphyrias. These inborn errors of metabolism have a physical base (namely, the liver). Several “common” triggers are known to instigate severe bizarre physical, neurological (aka “behavioral”) and/or psychiatric manifestations–individually or in any combination, which can result in life threatening attacks. Porphyrias can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms can mimic a wide variety of illnesses.The vast majority of such patients are often misdiagnosed with mental illness conditions and prescribed meds that are unsafe. I am familiar with a patient who has been treated harshly (and in my opinion, inhumanely) due to DOC’s ignorance and unwillingness to learn more about porphyria. The referenced inmate was “made” to ingest (and sometimes involuntarily administered) multiples of unsafe meds–and received punishment(s) for denying meds which this person, due to past experience, knew to be unsafe for them. While considered “rare,” in reality, it is likely that porphyric genetic profiles may be more prevalent within our society than experts think. That’s one of the facts I’m trying to discern. Studies have been done (US and other countries) that point to heightened ratio of porphyrics within mental institutions/jails vs the general population. Thank you for publishing this report, I will be contacting Senator Osten.

    1. Hi Joyce, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

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