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Legislation would examine Connecticut inmates’ growing mental health crisis

Matt B

Connecticut’s prisons are having to keep inmates locked inside while also dealing with mental health concerns. Some prisoners have worsening mental health while behind bars or had struggles before they were incarcerated.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with state Senator Cathy Osten who has introduced a bill to improve the mental health services for inmates.

WSHU: Eighty-one percent of female inmates and 28% of male inmates have chronic mental health issues. That’s according to the most recent July 2020 report by the Connecticut Sentencing Commission.

Now, Senator Osten, you want to convene a state task force to re-examine the mental health status of the state’s inmate population. Is that correct?

CO: That is correct. And just for clarification, the Sentencing Commission did its report after I had asked for this task force for a couple of years, and had not got it done. So the Sentencing Commission report is a basic report. It's not an in-depth report. And we still need to do the in-depth report to make sure that our numbers are accurate. And to further identify inmates that have chronic mental health or behavioral health conditions that have either not been self disclosed or appropriately identified.

WSHU: Senator, you actually worked for a while in the Department of Correction. And so you might have seen some of the stressors, and then with the stress of the pandemic on top of that, you know, what are some of the things that both prison workers and inmates are going through right now?

CO: So, I worked for more than two decades in the Department of Correction. And I worked at seven different correctional facilities, both male and female. So I worked pretty much the gamut across the board. And one of the bigger changes that happened in the Department of Corrections, relative to the number of chronically mentally ill or behavioral health issues amongst the inmate population, was because we closed our state psychiatric facilities and no longer had those resources available. And when we close the state psychiatric facilities, we as a government said that what we would do is we would come up with supportive housing environments. And we did not do that.

The staff themselves often don't know if someone has a chronic mental health issue. They're not given that information.

WSHU: As you mentioned, there's a percentage of people with poor mental health who end up incarcerated because they might not have the support at home or in their communities. Is there a solution here that involves getting to people before they're caught up in the criminal justice system or even after they've served their time that's related to mental health?

CO: We certainly should provide them with the resources when they are discharged into the communities. We should have a reentry plan, which sometimes is there. But it should be a very comprehensive reentry plan, which helps them deal with the issues they have so that they get the appropriate supports to afford food and a place to live. And that they can see a licensed clinical social worker, or whatever their needs are. Make sure that they have the correct medication. But the best plan of all would be to provide people with the services they need before they are ever incarcerated, before that ever even happens. And so the bill that I have in is looking at those that are incarcerated. But the best solution is to not get people incarcerated.

WSHU: And to improve mental health, while incarcerated advocates have been calling for more time that inmates are given out of their cells, better ability to call their families and to keep up with personal hygiene. Correction workers unions say that this can be challenging with staffing overtime, and now shortages. Since the start of the pandemic, how could the state better address both the needs of the inmates and the workers.

CO: So we've been looking at the inmates, for example, the inmate phone call situation. First of all, there are not enough phones, and each one of the units if we truly want to have people have the capacity to call their families. And so there are other things that we're looking at relative to inmate communication with their families, an email system, keeping in mind that the email system and the phone call system are all monitored in case there are criminal activities that are happening over the phone. And our prisons are not designed as a psychiatric institution, so that this still has to go on. So looking at that, that'll help out. We also need to have the appropriate staffing if we're going to increase the timeframes that people are out of their cells so that everybody’s safe, not just the staff, but the inmate population needs to be safe. This is a congregate environment with people living in close quarters to each other.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.
Isabel is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.