A quarter of Arizona prisoners are mentally ill

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For 23 minutes, Tucson prison guards recorded Anthony Lester bleeding to death. Lester slit his throat, wrists and legs with a razor he never should have been given. Lester suffered from schizophrenia. Before he committed suicide, he told his family that the voices in his head were getting worse.

The recording can be found here.

Lester’s story is not unique. In Arizona, mentally ill persons are nearly 10 times more likely to end up in jails and prisons than in hospitals, according to a 2014 Treatment Advocacy Center report. Nationally, it’s estimated that up to 26 percent of people incarcerated suffer from a mental health disorder, while only 18 percent of the public does, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Applying that percentage to Arizona could mean that more than 11,000 people in the state’s prisons suffer from a mental illness.

Arizonan Mary Lou Brncik knows firsthand how common stories like Lester’s are. Her son is schizophrenic and has been arrested on various occasions.

“The chances of my son staying out of jail with his mental illness were the same chances of getting struck by lightning,” Brncik said.

She believes her son would have ended up in prison if she had not been able to get him the right help at the right time.

Brncik began a local nonprofit organization named David’s Hope that encourages treatment rather than incarceration for people with mental illness. Brncik wants the public to know that, “mental illness is an organic brain disease, not a character flaw.”

“If someone’s really sick and delusional,we don’t hesitate to put them in jail when they’re doing something crazy, but we do hesitate to get them treatment,” she said.

That hesitation dates back more than a half-century ago when the United States began emptying its state psychiatric hospitals. This process is known as “deinstitutionalization.” The change was called for in response to uncovering deplorable conditions in some state psychiatric hospitals as well as the promise of new medications that could stabilize some patients.

Deinstitutionalization led to 95 percent of the country’s psychiatric hospital beds disappearing, while communities struggled to care for less than half of the patients who needed psychiatric help, according to a the Treatment Advocacy report. In 2012, roughly 60 percent of Americans with a mental illness did not receive treatment, according to a National Alliance on Mental Illness report.

In 2010 Arizona spent $221.27 per capita, spending more per capita than 43 states. Arizona ranks second to worst when it comes to having mentally ill persons in hospitals. A shortage of resources and an abundance of unqualified case managers make helping the mentally ill difficult, according to Glendale’s Mental Health Court Judge Elizabeth Finn.

It is recommended to have 50 psychiatric hospital beds per 100,000 people. According to a 2012 Treatment Advocacy Center report, Arizona had 4.1 beds per 100,000 people in 2010.

Some see an alternative to incarcerating those with mental illness by changing how courts handle such cases. Mental health courts provide and enforce treatment plans for people with mental illness who commit misdemeanor crimes. All 15 counties in Arizona have specific systems in place to handle defendants with mental illnesses.

According to Elizabeth Finn, who presides over Glendale’s Mental Health Court, a mental health court does not care if you are guilty or not. Finn said that mental health courts are focused on getting people stable by implementing a case manager’s treatment plan. Mental health courts have grown nationally from four in 1997 to more than 300 today, with programs in place in nearly every state, according to the Justice Center. Finn said that incarcerating a mentally ill person is “probably the worst thing you can do for them.”

Brett Matossian, a Tucsonan who spent five years in prison for fraud, agrees with Finn. Matossian said, “I went to court 50 times, where they wake you up in the middle of the night, shackle you up, rush you downtown, let you sleep on concrete for a couple of hours. For someone who is sound of mind and body it’s hard. For someone who has a mental illness, I don’t even know how they make it happen.” Matossian’s counselors have suggested that he suffers from anti-personality disorder. Matossian works for a peer-run organization names Hope Lives that focuses on helping people with mental illness who have a connection to the criminal justice system reintegrate into society.

According to a National Alliance on Mental Health report, between 2009 and 2011 Arizona cut overall state mental health spending by 23 percent or $108.4 million. This reduced mental health services to 14,000 Arizonans.

Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist who is licensed in Arizona, said the public needs to be aware that mental health services in prisons are a good investment. He believes that mental health services will allow inmates to take advantage of pre-existing programs that may help them with a better life.

“The constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, it’s the right thing to do,” Dvoskin said.

Meryl Engle is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at maengle@email.arizona.edu.

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