Panel addresses mental health crisis in prisons

By JAMES SCHARF | March 29, 2018

COURTESY OF SHEFALI VIJAY Pizzo criticized the lack of resources available to prison inmates who are mentally ill.

Jail Tutorial Project held a panel discussion about the mental health crisis in prisons on Monday, March 26. It featured panelists Mary Pizzo, supervising attorney for mental health litigation support at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, and Doug Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

Pizzo holds a BS and MS in Nursing and a JD. Colbert researches racial disparities in the criminal justice system, among other topics. The speakers broadly agreed that the criminal justice system, especially in Baltimore, does not properly treat inmates with mental disabilities.

According to Pizzo, about 17 percent of the people in the criminal justice system have mental health issues. However, Pizzo said that prisons are not equipped to offer the same services as mental health hospitals. 

Pizzo explained that even though police do screen arrestees for mental health conditions, language, culture and a lack of trust between indictees and police prevent screenings from working well. Difficulties in translating psychological concepts plague the process too, she said. 

“Not everything translates word for word,” she said.

Pizzo also blames the police for failing to label mentally ill offenders, even though officers who know the offenders acknowledge that there is a mental health problem. 

She discussed her personal experience with an autistic repeat offender.

“He picked up all of these ridiculous charges,” she said. “[But] that’s what police do — they charge people.”

However, Pizzo acknowledged that the police department has some services available for mentally ill indictees.

“When someone [at central booking] has a mental illness, there is a behavioral health unit,” Pizzo said.

She stressed that the unit typically deals with the most extreme or obvious cases of mental health. However, she criticized the lack of resources for the inmates who are identified as having mental illnesses.

“[The inmates] don’t even have a mattress. The only thing that they have is a big blanket that looks like an Allied Van Moving Blanket,” Pizzo said. “If they’re suicidal, or if somebody considers them a risk, that’s what they’re given. No mattress, no pillow, no clothing — just this big old blanket.”

Colbert added that Baltimore jails today have made much progress. However, he rejected the possibility that jail could reform someone with mental disabilities.

Both agreed that mental hospitals provided a much better alternative to jail.

“Jails are not mental health hospitals,” Pizzo said.

Colbert asserted that the best place to catch potentially ill individuals is before the system charges them.

“The most important stage of the criminal proceeding takes place at the very beginning,” he said.

Colbert noted that jails suffered from a lack of mental health resources and training, which means that the police officers who want to help cannot.

“The police are not getting the training to deal with people who suffer from mental illness,” Colbert said.

Pizzo says that there are significant challenges with fixing problems that appear systemic. She used her experience with amalgamating a list of mental health resources as an example.

“We have had a devil of a time just to identify all of the resources available for people with mental health in Baltimore,” she said.

Colbert believes that most people aren’t comfortable with confronting the poor conditions of the justice system because of their own personal discomfort. However, he argued that such discomfort should instead propel them to fix the system.

“Most people want to stay away because it upsets you. It’s supposed to upset you. You would never leave a loved one in such a situation,” he said.

Ank Agarwal, Co-president of Jail Tutorial, explained that the event was important for club members since they sometimes interact with mentally ill inmates. There is no sub-group of the club that specializes in working with mentally ill individuals.

“We aren’t equipped to help them out in some ways,” Agarwal said. “And when we do help, sometimes there’s also a loss of information in the chain of command.”

Junior James Yu, a Jail Tutorial Project member, appreciated the event.

“It’s great to learn about these things. I’m pre-med, I’m a bio major and a French minor, so I have no background in law whatsoever, so this could be simple stuff to them [Colbert and Pizzo], but it’s groundbreaking to me,” Yu said.

Yu described the poignancy of the speakers’ words.

“They spur us to action. It’s pretty cool to hear this,” Yu said.

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