Special Report: Managing Mental Illness Behind Bars

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – It’s a problem jail leaders and lawmakers across the country are trying to tackle, managing inmates with mental illness.

Studies have shown those inmates have a higher risk for reoffending. This recidivism for small crimes can sometimes clog jails.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail is home to the area’s highest population of inmates with serious mental illness. Inmates like 18-year-old Virginia Beach high schooler Jordan Fears.

“It’s pretty life changing. I feel way more humble now. I feel like I can focus better, get stuff done,” Fears says.

Before ending up behind bars, Fears led an otherwise normal life, until mental illness took hold.

“I was stranded, going through some really tough stuff. I lost it. I just finally lost my mind. Voices telling me some crazy stuff,” he says.

Combating paranoia, schizophrenia, and psychosis, Fears was arrested for several crimes, including stealing a car and leading police on high-speed chase that ended with a crash in Hampton.

“I could have made a way better decision, but I just lost it,” Fears says.

He’s not alone, hundreds of inmates at Hampton Roads Regional Jail suffer from some form of mental illness.

“Because of their mental illness they’re not going to know where to go, how to survive, and they’re going to offend and come right back,” explains Kathie Moore, a peer specialist who works at the jail.

She is one of several new hires that includes a mental health program manager, program administrator, clinical therapist, and case manager thanks to a nearly $1 million grant from the state.

The money funds a program called CORE or Community Oriented Re-Entry – the goal: to successfully transition low-risk inmates with serious mental illness into the community. Linking them with resources before they leave.

“Basically when they’re released, we do discharge planning. Help with housing, transportation, food and clothing. Also mental health appointments, prescriptions, medication, to make sure they follow through. We do a follow-up to make sure they are meeting their needs,” Moore explains. “Because of their mental illness they’re not going to know where to go, how to survive, and they’re going to offend and come right back.”

The program also provides wrap around services. It teaches participants life skills and coping mechanisms, treating the inmates in some ways, like students, or patients, rather than criminals. It’s a welcome change for the jail staff who have seen firsthand the increase of inmates with mental illness. More than a third of them are also now specially trained to handle the at-risk population.

“When we first started at the jail our population was really just criminals. But now, it’s more people are doing things because of their mental health issues,” explains Sgt. Tamara Everette. She and several veteran jail officers tell 10 On Your Side they often feel they work at a hospital, rather than a jail.

Over 100 offenders so far have qualified qualify for the CORE. Inmates must meet a set of eligibility factors, including not being charged with a sex offense, have a serious mental illness, unemployed or employed in a sheltered setting, and be non-violent.

So far, 18 CORE participants have been released with medication and housing. Multiple low risk offenders, according to the jail, have had their sentences reduced by being placed with the proper programs, and providing a discharge plan.

But, the program could be short-lived. It is only funded for 18 months. HRRJ is one of six jails in the state to receive funding. It was appropriated through last year’s legislative session. Now it’s up to lawmakers to fund it in the next legislative session, or the CORE program will end in June 2018.

Public Safety Director Brian Moran tells 10 On Your Side the program is “critically important” saying lawmakers have a “moral” obligation to treat inmates with serious mental illness.

He plans to brief lawmakers mid October with an update on the CORE program, in a push to secure funding.