Mental health a major issue in jails

WICHITA, Kan. — Last week’s police chase that left suspect David Zehring dead is another incident pointing to the mental health concerns in the community. After authorities released the details that Zehring had previously been evaluated for his mental health after previous incidents KSN wanted to learn more about what health care assets are available for the mentally unstable in the justice system.

“When there aren’t community services available to help with treatment then in many cases those folks will end in jail because there’s no other place for them,” said Gerry Lichti with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails by the Treatment Avocacy Center

Officials say Zehring had a history of mental illness and spent some time at Larned State Mental Health Facility, but now many are saying that incident points to the bigger problem at hand once someone is released.

“They cease treatment and then go right back into that downward slope of getting terribly symptomatic,” said Lichti. “…and one never knows what’s going to occur then.”

Then the issue trickles down into the jails.

“We are dealing with this population more and more every day,” said Sedgwick County sheriff, Jeff Easter. “Now it’s evolved into for several years the sheriff’s office specifically the jail is kind of the housing unit for mental health patients to be real honest with you.”

The Sedgwick County Jail has a pod of the jail dedicated to helping treat mentally ill inmates, but it can only house 48 prisoners at a time. Capt. Sharon Willits works directly with the facility which is currently full.

“There’s plenty more waiting to go in,” said Willits. “If we could fill three pods, turn them into mental health pods we’d probably have enough inmates to do that, but we don’t have those kind of resources. We’re happy to get what we get.”

So where does the responsibility truly lie? That’s one of the questions that officials say needs an answer.

“What’s the responsibility of the community to make sure they get some assistance and treatment,” said Lichti. “We would do that in any other case.”

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