The total number of deaths for the period is likely significantly higher than what could be documented through available records.
The same grim patterns emerge again and again:
At least 41 percent of those who died were in isolation or recently had been. Solitary confinement has long been known to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illnesses.
44 percent of the deaths were by suicide, which can often be prevented with close monitoring.
In 70 cases, inmates were shocked with a Taser or stun gun, pepper-sprayed or restrained – often in some combination – before dying.
In at least 11 percent of the cases, family or friends warned the jail that their loved one had a mental illness. In at least six of those, they tried to bring the correct medications to the jail.
Without medications and proper treatment, someone with a disease like schizophrenia can rapidly decline. It’s not uncommon for such inmates to wind up in isolation, naked and smearing feces around their cell.
For years, sheriffs, mental health advocates, families and prosecutors have sounded the alarm about the number of people with illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression who are sent to jail, often for minor crimes. Unlike prisons, which house those convicted of and sentenced for a crime, jails must take in anyone arrested – including those in the throes of a mental-health crisis.
“We are arresting people who have no idea what the laws are or the rules are because they're off their medications,” said Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall, a vice president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “You'd never arrest someone for a heart attack, but you're comfortable arresting someone who is diagnosed mentally ill. No other country in the world is doing it this way.”
In addition to causing pain and suffering for people with mental illness, the practice is costing municipalities millions.
At least 53 percent of the deaths examined have resulted in a lawsuit. Combined, the cases have cost municipalities at least $145 million. The true cost is much higher – in many cases, lawsuits are still pending and in others the settlement amount is secret. The figures also do not take into account lawyers’ fees.
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