Mental Illness Lands Many in Parish Prison

Mar 9, 2015

When someone having a mental health crisis is picked up by Baton Rouge Police, they often end up inside parish prison. Sources at Capitol Area Human Services estimate between 30 and 50 percent of inmates there are suffering with a mental illness.

Shortly after Sgt. Darryl Honoré went through Crisis Intervention Training, he and his partner were dispatched to deal with a man who was running in and out of traffic. Honoré said the man was calling for an imaginary friend, "Bobby". "And he stated that he wouldn’t go anywhere with us unless we took Bobby with us," the sergeant recalled.

The Crisis Intervention Training taught Sgt. Honoré that the best thing to do was keep the man as calm as he could. So Sgt. Honoré opened up a door to the police car for a person that wasn’t there.

"We got the gentleman in the unit, and transported him to Earl K. Long.”

About 120 of 700 Baton Rouge police officers are trained in crisis intervention. The 40 hour class teaches officers to recognize when someone needs to go to a hospital, not jail. But as mental health facilities -- like the mental health emergency room at Earl K. Long -- have closed or cut back, the officers options have become more limited.

"And as they begin to shrink, the numbers are starting to rise inside the jail," said Sgt. Honoré. Once there, the people picked up by police during a mental health crisis are booked, charged and usually stay until their trial date. The East Baton Rouge Parish prison isn't equipped to offer treatment to inmates in mental health crises.

"If someone’s in parish prison and they’re having an episode, unfortunately they have to be put on lockdown," said Tonja Myles, a Peer Support Specialist with Capital Area Human Services District.

Myles, who herself deals with post traumatic stress and depression, says jail isn't the place for people in mental health crisis.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation is looking at ways to improve options for officers like Sgt. Honoré. They're in the planning stages of a crisis stabilization unit that would serve as a place for treatment.

"The police officer can bring the person to the stabilization center, they can be stable, and then from there you have doctors, psychiatrist, and staff who can make an assessment whether or not that person should go back home, or to a 28-day program or outpatient," Myles explained.

Which would mean people having a mental health crisis are directed towards treatment and away from the criminal justice system.