I took a tour of the Harris County Jail Mental Health Unit. Here’s what I found.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) operates the nation's fourth-largest jail, with an inmate population approaching 9,000. (Jail Mental Health Initiatives)

     At Grassroots Leadership, we advocate and organize against private prison, detention centers and behavioral health treatment centers.  Diverting those with mental health concerns from the criminal justice system into community treatment programs. Ultimately, those with mental health issues are not diverted but instead forced into a failed criminal and mental health system — especially in Houston, Texas.

     Recently, I visited the Harris County jail’s mental health compound for a tour. I knew the conditions were reported to be nothing short of horrible.  I was ready to see the worst. However, nothing could have prepared me for a “field trip” to the mental health lock down unit.

     Harris County has the fourth largest population of people with mental health issues incarcerated in the jail.  “If you want mental health treatment get locked up in the Harris County Jail,” I have heard folks say. This saying has become a cliché if not an outright joke, because we know that jail is not a place for treatment.  Instead of offering more mental health resources and support in the community, Harris County sends people to jail. Then when people are locked up, they don’t receive the behavioral health supports they need.

     It seems that the criminal justice and mental health systems are disturbingly comfortable with confining those with health care needs into hospital/jail compounds to save money. Edward Harrison, president and CEO of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, has even praised the jail, saying, “The Harris County jail functions as the largest mental health institution in Texas. We are delighted to honor them for their innovation, compassion and understanding of the unique challenges of mental illness in the justice system.”

     Why would so many not only support but also commend a county for imprisoning folks who are not well?  Perhaps, in large part, due to the accepted false narrative that jail is not only desirable but also necessary for medical treatment. Nothing could be further from the truth.  A facility designed to punish a human can double as a humane treatment center.  It simply does not and cannot do anything more than exacerbate the symptoms of a person who is not doing well.  People don’t get better in jail.

     I attended the tour on February 22, 2018 with the Policy Fellowship Academy. It was an exclusive tour for policy fellows.  We were joined by Harris County Jail officials Robert Simon, assistant deputy director of Adult Justice Services and Sean McElroy, mental health jail administrator.

     We walked down the winding stairs into what could best be described as a medieval dungeon. It was terribly cold, dark and drafty. The guard gave a speech praising the state of the art services offered to the patients and encouraged us to look around. The cell doors had multiple large complicated locks on them as if a wild dangerous beast lived inside.  That wasn’t the case at all. I peered through the small plastic window only to find a small-frightened body curled up in a corner. There wasn’t much else inside with him except a small hole in the middle of the floor and a long steel shelf ledge to serve as a bed.  It is difficult to express what I felt. I only know it was beyond painful.

     I asked a deputy guard, “What crimes have these people committed to get here?  Did most of them kill or attack someone?” I knew the answer: they were locked up because they needed help.

     He answered, “No. This isn’t no place for them to be, but here they are.”  He went on to explain that most were in jail for trespassing. In fact, many hadn’t been found guilty of anything at all, because the courts decided they were too “sick” to stand trial.  The tour ended and we began to exit the floor unit.

     I remember the deputy referred to those confined in the mental health unit as “patients” during the entire tour.  He told us he always forgets that he can’t say patient when he is referring to the “inmates.” He spent a great deal of time before we left explaining the distinction.  It was in vain, because I am still not sure what the difference is between a patient and a prisoner behind the walls of the Harris County Jail Mental Health Unit.

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