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Special Report: Mentally Ill Inmates

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports more than 115,000 Arkansans battle some type of mental illness, and many of them do it in our criminal justice system.
As Sgt. James Tallent moves an inmate, a moment of violence erupts.

If Sgt. Tallent can't regain control, what happens next could be the difference between life and death.

Jailers are dealing with an unpredictable man who could be a danger to them now, and you later.

"We're gonna send you up there and see if they can't get you better and get you on your medicine and everything."

They're moving the inmate from the Hot Spring County Jail where he's spent the last five months to the state hospital.

Although the man is charged with assault, a judge declared him mentally unfit to stand trial.

Jail administrator George Wright says Hot Spring County Jailers have absolutely no training whatsoever in dealing with mentally ill inmates.

Making matters worse, the only reason the man has been in the county jail for so long is because it took five months to free up a bed in the forensic unit at the state hospital.

"He's very dangerous,” Jail administrator George Wright said. “The reason he's dangerous is because he doesn't have a firm grasp on reality."

It’s been a long five months for jailers.

In security camera footage from August, the inmate threw three punches while being moved from one cell to another, and has to be tased by a jailer.

In similar footage from July, three jailers had to restrain the man.

On a different day in July, five men had to restrain the inmate. Even the sheriff jumped in to help.

And it's not just this jail's security cameras catching these types of altercations on tape. The same thing happens on an almost daily basis all over the state.

“It's a problem in our state," Kim Arnold, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said.

"It's happening in every county, in my opinion. I'll say this, I haven't heard of a county where we get a call and say it's not happening."

The last time states were ranked on their treatment of the mentally ill - Arkansas scored an "F" and tied with four other states for last place.

One reason for the low ranking is the lack of psychiatric beds.

People are sent to the State Hospital when a judge rules they're mentally unfit to stand trial, like this man in Hot Spring county.

Or they're acquitted of a crime based on mental illness, and that's why you have mentally ill inmates languishing in county jails for months at a time.

The issue doesn't just affect inmates and jailers though - it affects taxpayers, too.

The State Hospital spends almost 50 million taxpayer dollars a year, and about half of their patients are in the forensic unit.

So how do we fix the problem?

"What needs to happen is there needs to be finances pushed this direction," Wright said.

"I think it needs more attention, it needs more funding."

What to spend the money on is a little more complicated. The National alliance on mental illness concludes that Arkansas needs a jail diversion program, crisis services, and services for homeless people.

In other words, they suggest the state keeps a lot of the mentally ill out of jail in the first place.

"We're spending the money already, we're just spending it in emergency services as fixes," Arnold said.

It's up to state lawmakers to decide how money for the mentally ill is spent. They meet again in February.

Until then though, jailers like Sgt. Tallent have no choice but to be ready for the unpredictable.

Dr. Brian Simpson says once a mentally ill inmate gets a bed at the state hospital, the state hospital's rate of success is high.

He says a patient's average stay at the state hospital is about six months, but it can be much longer.
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