Our Jails Have Become Response To Insanity

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The horrific images make the soul shudder: A man sits huddled behind concrete and iron, waiting for any chance to kill himself.

Down the concrete hall, another prisoner systematically bites pieces out of his forearm.

A few cells down, another man hits his head methodically against the wall until the blood runs down to the floor.

The county jail has become a holding center for those with mental illnesses.

Today in Arizona, we have 10 times as many severely mentally ill people in jail as we have in hospital-based treatment facilities.

This intolerable situation dates back to a laudable reform movement that 20 years ago focused on the snake pits the nation’s underfunded mental hospitals had become — with people with mild abnormalities locked up against their will for years at a time alongside the overtly insane.

Reformers crusaded against that system and won the struggle, forcing the end to many of these involuntary commitments. The reforms assumed that the mental hospitals would release those patients to community treatment facilities, where people could get the help they needed in the least restrictive setting.

One problem: No one ever funded the community treatment facilities. As a result, many of these chronically mentally ill patients became homeless or acted out in such strange and sometimes violent ways that they ended up in jail.

Authorities estimate that at least 5 percent of the 160 inmates in the bulging Gila County Jail suffer from severe mental illness.

Fortunately, the county has teamed up with the community behavioral health agency Cenpatico to work with those inmates to try to find the support they need if they’re to succeed once they serve their time. The treatment system for the severely mentally ill is in tatters, full of gaps and holes. So these inmates will need help negotiating the system and staying out of trouble.

So we applaud Gila County’s effort to do something both creative and compassionate for those inmates. The workers meet regularly with these lost souls for a month before their release, then help them make the transition to the community.

Hopefully, this intervention will interrupt the senseless pattern. After all — we all know that shorthand definition of insanity — to do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

That would be just plain crazy.

Solutions not obstacles

Gila Community College needs a path to independence. How to achieve that is being debated in an Arizona Senate task force. There is no doubt in our mind that obstacles will be placed in the way of independence for GCC.

It seems even the task force wants to roll large boulders in front of the school and voters.

Those wanting to place obstacles say there is no way the college can support itself with current funding, that it does not have the resources or ability to get accredited, so therefore there is no reason to offer legislation which will allow the college to even try to become independent.

Sen. Sylvia Allen disagrees, saying the school has been paying its way and even providing Eastern Arizona College with an extra $1.5 million in overhead costs as part of the 25-percent surcharge it must pay EAC for the privilege of having it oversee the school’s functions.

Allen said, “If you’re functioning today with the money you have today, I don’t see why you can’t function tomorrow with the money you have today as an independent college.”

Makes sense to us.

The task force should create a path for the school to achieve independence, not look for boulders to place in its way. Could there be task force members who don’t want independence for GCC? Surely not.

The current situation is intolerable and needs to be corrected. We have elected GCC board members to create an operating policy for the school, yet they have no real authority. EAC dictates the policy, hires the deans and creates the budget — and does all that and tells the board we elected virtually nothing.

The current GCC board is also controlled by the southern part of Gila County, although the tax base and population favors northern Gila County. Hopefully that arrangement will change with the fall election.

The task force needs to move forward with creating legislation that will give GCC a path to independence and quit looking for obstacles to block that path. Once that path is created, it will be up to GCC supporters to pave the way to independence with money and other means of support.

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