Opinion: Thanks for report on state mental health system

Congratulations to Zach Despart and the Addison Independent for its front-page report on the sorry state of Vermont’s overburdened mental health system, under which our prison system has, in effect, become the largest mental health care provider in the state.
This de facto reversion to pre-modern practices, when the “mad” were chucked into “bedlam” to get them out of sight confronts us with a fundamental social and ethical question: how Vermonters want their mentally ill to be cared for and whether neglect and, in some cases, outright abuse of these vulnerable citizens — which might usefully be the subject of Zach Despart’s next investigative report — should continue to be the norm for lack of resources and better policies.
Our Addison County representatives and senators, not to mention our governor, need to put this basic issue on the front burner. While there are always competing budget requirements, this is a moral challenge on which we need to get our priorities right.
A related question is how mentally impaired Vermonters in commercial out-of-state prisons are treated. The Corrections Department reports that it tries to send only mentally normal prisoners out of state, because that reduces costs, and that it conducts periodic inspections. Even so, the powerful for-profit company involved has a mixed record, including recent riots and lock-downs. And it’s far from clear to what extent the original screening remains effective and prison-induced mental illnesses are taken into account.
A recent number of investigative reports in The New York Times of widespread brutality and abuse of mentally ill prisoners in some of our prison systems are not encouraging. Its reporting is reinforced by a recent shocking BBC Panorama video which concludes that this is a country-wide problem. (See https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=bedlam+behind+bars).
California, 28 percent of whose prison population is mentally ill, has now, at long last, taken action and dramatically revised its prison regulations in a system-wide culture change. The catalysts were videos and reports that showed corrections officers in state prisons dousing severely mentally ill inmates with pepper spray and using brutal force to remove them from their cells. The videos drew public outrage and were called “horrific” by a federal judge who ordered the footage made public last year. (See: www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/us/california-revises-policy-on-mentally-ill-…).
While Vermont is, no doubt, in better shape, it too needs to make sure that both its in-state and out-of-state prisoners who have mental problems are not abused and receive needed treatment and professional care. Besides investigative reporting by our media, an independent panel of psychiatric professionals should be appointed to investigate conditions annually, both in and out of state, and make public reports.
That said, the basic challenge facing Vermont is that we must finally stop using our prisons as substitutes for mental hospitals and clinics. Some major reforms are urgently needed.
George Jaeger
New Haven

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