The millions it costs to incarcerate the mentally ill

DENVER – On the third floor of Denver's Van Cise Detention Center, Deputy Glenn White has grown accustomed to the surreal.

"One of our repeat customers comes through on a fairly consistent basis," White said while talking about an inmate 9NEWS will not name. "Every time he gets agitated, he thinks we're at Shea Stadium in 1969."

Others don't have any idea what day it is.

"Or what year it is," added White. "Some still think they're sitting at home."

The fact that Denver's downtown jail has become the end of the road for many of the community's mentally ill will surprise no one who has spent any amount of time working in and around the relatively new facility.

"Approximately 40 percent of our population is on some type of medication that deals with some sort of mental illness," Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson told 9Wants to Know recently.

In 2011, the Denver Sheriff's Office found 593 of its inmates to be severely mentally ill under its internal coding system. Last year, that number climbed to 1,392.

"We do what we can with the resources we have," Sheriff Wilson said.

The facility, built in 2010, certainly helps. There's an infirmary section where suicidal inmates can technically be monitored 24 hours a day. Denver Health Medical Center staff members are available around the clock as well.

9NEWS has partnered with Rocky Mountain PBS/I-News on a series of stories documenting the net result of Colorado's growing problem with how it handles the mentally ill. "Untreated: How Ignoring Mental Illness Costs Us All" highlights, for example, how metro-area counties estimate it costs more than $44 million a year to incarcerate inmates with mental disorders.

The study also found people with mental illness are more than five times as likely to be housed in jails or prisons than in hospital psychiatric beds.

"Years ago, we deinstitutionalized mental health treatment," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told I-News reporter Kristin Jones. "People felt it was shameful that we had people in custody or locked up in mental-health facilities. Now, instead, we lock them up in jail."

Jones found once they're in, inmates with behavioral-health problems have more trouble getting out. Her work found mentally-ill inmates stayed, on average, five times longer than other inmates.

Sheriff Wilson said the mentally ill frequently have a hard time making bail.

For more on the investigation, visit:

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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