THE FACE OF A BROKEN SYSTEM; Melissa Ann Jernigan Has Been Arrested about 20 Times since 1999. Instead of Treating Her, Why Do We Keep Putting a Mentally Ill Woman Behind Bars?

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank Denton

Yes, that face to the right is a woman, and no, despite the appearance, it is not a face of anger or evil or meanness. Along with all those other faces of Melissa Ann Jernigan over the years, hers is a face of bewilderment or frustration or desperation.

They are all police mug shots of Jernigan as her mind misfired and deteriorated over the years. Her story tragically and graphically illustrates our virtual abandonment of very many people in our community who are mentally ill. Instead of helping them get well, we lock them up.

The three biggest mental-health providers in the nation today are: the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Jail and Rikers Island jail in New York.

The biggest mental-health provider in Duval County is the Duval County jail.

Think about that.

Last week, you read in the Times-Union that Jacksonville Community Council Inc. has launched a major inquiry into community mental health. It will hold weekly meetings and, by summer, develop recommendations on various aspects of a broad issue that affects our quality of life in multitudinous ways - but is too often hidden, suffering in the shadows, underneath our routines, but constantly hurting and often destroying people.

Ever the optimist, I am hoping for substantial progress, but we have stumbled down this road before. As a journalist who has covered it for a long time, I have the historical perspective to see the inquiry as the inevitable and long overdue result of public-policy fits and starts and failures dating back more than 50 years.

Before then, there was little mental-health care, and those most afflicted were locked up in often horrendous warehouses ironically called "asylums" but really meant to protect the rest of us while doing little or nothing for the incarcerated sick people.

Weeks before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 to create a national network of community mental health centers for every city, so the mentally ill could leave the state hospitals and get treatment in their own towns, ideally supported by family members.

Indeed, the state hospitals eliminated about 90 percent of their beds, and the sick went home for the promised community treatment. As a young reporter in 1971, I covered the development, building and opening of the very nice center in Anniston, Ala.

But again, we chose not to think about the mentally ill, and they left our attention span. Only about half of the planned 1,500 centers were actually built, none was ever fully funded, and in the Reagan years, the appropriations were converted into "block grants" allowing the states to spend the money however they wanted. The community mental health effort melted, and the mentally ill largely were left to their fates on the streets.

Given that many of them suffer from serious, debilitating illnesses, they often get into trouble. A 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association estimated that 40 percent of the seriously mentally ill have been in jail or prison at least once in their lives.

Florida has almost five times more seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. "We have now returned to the conditions of the 1840s by putting large numbers of mentally ill persons back into jails and prisons," the 2010 study said.

Tara Wildes, director of the Jacksonville sheriff's Department of Corrections, estimates that up to 80 percent of the jail's average 2,400 population have some sort of mental-health issue, and maybe 10 percent are seriously mentally ill. That's more than 200 at any given time.

There are so many that the jail has had to develop four levels of confinement and care for its mentally ill majority. Some are functional enough that they can be in the general population. …

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