An April 15 article in the Bangor Daily News about the death of an inmate at the Penobscot County Jail is a reminder that stigma and stereotypes color public opinion about jails, the people who work in them, and the people who are sent to them.
Stigma is the use of negative labels to condone disrespect. It results in fear, mistrust and discrimination. It results in false assumptions and false accusations. It is wrong when it is about people with mental illness; it is wrong when it is about correctional officers.
People with mental illness remain one of the most stigmatized populations in the world and stigma is one of the factors that contribute to their high rates of incarceration. In September 2006, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 64 percent of jail inmates have mental illness (60 percent are actively symptomatic and 24 percent meet criteria for a psychotic disorder).
Jails house more people with mental illness than all of the psychiatric hospitals in the country. Over 45,000 people will pass through Maine’s jails this year — the vast majority of them will have mental health and substance abuse problems. Our laws require that they be adequately housed, fed, clothed, provided with health care, and protected.
Maine’s jails are overcrowded, old and undercompensated. They receive $24 a day from the state for each inmate. Hospitals and detox facilities receive thousands of dollars per day to provide housing, food, health care and protection for people with mental illness and substance abuse conditions. Sadly, we expect jails to provide the same without offering them the resources they need.
There is no longer any debate about it: Jails are not only this nation’s public safety institutions they are our de facto mental hospitals and detoxification facilities. We ask them to carry that burden for all of us. Then, we forget that they are a vital and important part of the fabric of our community, and blame them when something happens.
Consistent and false stereotypes persist about people with mental illness — they are dangerous, their illness is willful, they cannot be trusted. The truth is that one in five people in this state live with mental illness; most are cherished members of loving families, work for a living, and pay taxes.
What are the consistent and false stereotypes that persist about correctional officers (jail guards)? That they are dangerous bullies and sadists, willfully torturing the inmates over whom they have control, that they cannot be trusted. The truth is that correctional officers have one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the state, work under stressful conditions, and care deeply about their profession, the work they do and the lives of the inmates that they protect.
We have both witnessed the toll that is taken on everyone, inside and outside of the jail, when a death occurs.
NAMI Maine and the Penobscot County Jail joined forces seven years ago to advocate together to improve conditions inside Maine’s jails. The driving force behind seven years of work is a commitment to better care for inmates, bringing the needs of Maine’s jails to the awareness of the public, and addressing conditions in one of the most inhumane and under-recognized settings in this country.
This joint advocacy effort has been successful in two important ways.
First, mental health services in the jail and collaboration between the jail and local service providers have improved treatment for inmates.
Second, we have shown that the best approach to advocacy is joining forces. No blame, no assumptions, no disrespect, no stigma. Together, we are determined to do everything within our power to reduce the number of people in jail who are seriously ill, to divert those who need treatment to that treatment, and to offer, inside the jail, the supports and services that keep inmates safe and help correctional officers to do their jobs.
We welcome all who care about Maine’s jails and the inmates they serve to join us in this effort.
Carol Carothers is the executive director of NAMI Maine. Glenn Ross is the sheriff of Penobscot County.