Early yesterday morning, an inmate at Larimer County jail bit off his own thumb.
In response to this bizarre act, a jail spokesman spoke out about what is characterized as "the growing number of inmates housed in county jails who suffer from apparent or diagnosed mental illness" — a long-running problem that has been allowed to fester at facilities throughout the state, and the nation.
At about 2 a.m. on January 27, according to the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, a corrections deputy at the jail was making a routine sweep through the high-security housing unit — something that's done at fifteen-minute intervals.
As he was approaching a cell door, the LCSO account continues, he saw something slide into his path from underneath it — a thumb.
Inside, the inmate was bleeding from his hand — and personnel quickly determined that the man had bitten off the digit.
He was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, but the thumb couldn't be re-attached.
Afterward, the inmate, who is said to have attacked a deputy on a previous occasion, was returned to his cell, "where he continues to attempt self-harm by pulling at the bandages and attempting to bite himself," the sheriff's office reveals.
The LCSO release adds: "While the Larimer County jail does provide mental health services to inmates through diagnoses and medications, the jail is not the appropriate venue for treatment of mental illness." Underscoring this comment is a quote from Captain Tim Palmer, commander of the corrections division in Larimer County: "Behavior management continues to be complex for corrections deputies because of inmates suffering significant and persistent mental health issues."
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With whom the fault for this situation lies is a larger question — one addressed from a different angle by a shocking series of lawsuits filed in New Mexico earlier this month. As we reported, two inmates, Sharon Jones and Jesus Marquez, died of very treatable strep infections while housed at the San Juan County Detention Center, while a third, William "Billy" Carter, passed away after the jail stopped providing him with an inhaler that helped him deal with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In addition, as many as thirty other inmates reported significant problems getting health care at the facility and suffered serious repercussions as a result.
Critics argue that care for mental health issues is just as problematic as for physical ailments, as our Alan Prendergast has pointed out in a number of articles over the past decade.
Here's a passage from the piece that hints at the scope of the problem.
Extreme as his case may be, Anderson's situation reflects certain fundamental truths facing thousands of mentally ill men and women in Colorado's prisons. For most of them, the treatment available is grossly inadequate. Many will deteriorate further during their time inside, particularly if they're in a place like CSP, where access to actual doctors and drugs is highly restricted. But even non-violent offenders face long waits for psychiatric visits and poor followup. More often than not, they'll return to the streets without viable treatment programs or the means to obtain the medications they need and will soon be behind bars again — not because they're career criminals, but because they have nowhere else to go.
The problem has been growing for years, outpacing the general increase in Colorado's prison population. The number of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness rose from 293 in 1991 to 3,750 in 2004 — a jump from 3 percent to 20 percent of all state prisoners. Although the latest DOC numbers indicate a slight drop in that count — to 3,590 — the true figure may be much higher, since some inmates' illnesses are never properly diagnosed. The stigma of mental illness is so great in prison that some inmates do whatever they can to conceal their symptoms rather than be labeled as head cases.
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Along the way, Prendergast writes, "Studies suggest that thousands of Coloradans aren't getting the treatment they need. Instead, they're spiraling through jails and emergency rooms, at enormous cost. One recent assessment of jails in the seven-county Denver metro area, released by a county commissioners' task force, found that mentally ill inmates spend far more time behind bars than other inmates and pegged the annual cost of housing that population in jail at $34.4 million."
That price tag has no doubt increased in a big way since then — and caring for the inmate who bit off his own thumb couldn't have been cheap, either. Then again, if he'd had proper mental health care, the incident might never have happened.