What is AWOL RISK?

Nearly 300,000 mentally ill people are held in US prisons, often because there is nowhere else for them to go. So serious is the problem that one jail in Los Angeles has become in effect the biggest mental institution in the country.

Senior police officers and mental health experts say that the situation is critical but there is a lack of political will to deal with it. Some of the mental patients spend many years in jail for minor offences.

Twin Towers jail in central Los Angeles, which Los Angeles county sheriff’s department calls the biggest known jail in the world, has become a national symbol of the crisis. About 2,000 mentally ill prisoners, recognisable by yellow shirts and the letter M on their name tags, make up almost half its intended occupants.

“The more unstable they are, the higher up they are,” Deputy Sheriff Daniel Castro said, conducting a tour of the building where the men are housed. “Up on the seventh floor are the most unstable.”

All are on medication. It was noticeable that the higher the floor, the slower and more sluggish the movements of the inmates. “Some guys, all they do is sleep all day,” Mr Castro said.

Many are both mentally ill and homeless, and have committed minor offences such as public drunkenness or vagrancy, or are awaiting trial. They spend most of the time lying on their bunks or watching television. A few read, but many are illiterate. They are allowed two 30-minute visits a week.

“We shouldn’t be running the largest de facto mental institution in the country,” the sheriff’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said yesterday. “We are doing it to the best of our ability but we just don’t have the resources. We have to have an alternative to what is going on now.”

The sheriff, Lee Baca, says it is not the job of the police and the county jails to incarcerate mentally disturbed people who have committed only misdemeanours. He would like to see a place established in central Los Angeles where they could be given treatment and help rather than locked up.

“Jails are not the appropriate place for the mentally ill,” he said yesterday, adding that the problem had been at “crisis emergency” level for some time.

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