Mental Illness: Untreated Behind Bars

Jail is the first stop for many who have broken the law in Virginia Beach, but the Virginia Beach Correctional Center is also the largest mental health provider in the state. 

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) - Society often sees the scene of the crime, the victims of violence, and the perp walks that lead to confinement. But what happens afterwards?

Jail is the first stop for many who have broken the law in Virginia Beach, but the Virginia Beach Correctional Center is also the largest mental health provider in the state.  Of the 1,400 inmates housed there, the sheriff's office says some 450, or about one third, have some kind of mental health condition, and the sheriff says his facility has reached the breaking point.

Joseph Sisson was booked into the Virginia Beach Correctional Center on November 20, on four misdemeanor charges resulting from a confrontation at a mental health facility. He had pre-existing medical and mental health conditions. The sheriff's office says Sisson was found dead in his cell January 8, just nine minutes after a deputy checked on him.  It prompted this blistering statement from Sheriff Ken Stolle:

Unfortunately, Virginia's mental health system is broken and ill-equipped to help all those who need it. Until jails like ours are no longer the primary mental health providers for the community, we will continue to see tragedies like this occur."

Sheriff Stolle says Sisson was just one inmate with mental illness who fell through the cracks of an overburdened system.

"He's never been arrested in his entire life up to this time and led a productive life. It's a shame that's the way he had to pass away, in a jail," Stolle said.

Stolle says the number of mentally ill inmates treated at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center has doubled from 225 when he took office in 2010 to about 450 inmates.  He says that number is nearly double the state average, and they keep coming back.  The recidivism rate for inmates with a mental illness is more than 90 percent in Virginia Beach.

"I'm the largest (mental) health care provider in Virginia right now. I don't have any experience in that," said Stolle

State Senator Creigh Deeds learned about mental illness first hand, through a family tragedy.  His son Gus Deeds had been diagnosed as bipolar in 2011, and took his own life two years later, after stabbing his father.

"I would give anything, anything I have, if I could change time, but I can't. My son's gone," said Sen. Deeds.

Since then, Deeds formed a subcommitteeknown as the Deeds commission, to seek more funds for those on front lines of the fight for mental health, from police crisis intervention teams to community service boards.

"That's why I'm confident if we can find ways to provide services in the community, we save money throughout the process," said Deeds.

He also says expanding Medicaid would open treatment to some 60,000 Virginians with serious mental illness.

Whatever the source, mental health advocates say more funding for treatment is money well spent.

"That funding will all pay for itself in the positive outcome for these individuals who are living with mental illness," said Courtney Boone, President of the Virginia Beach Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Latest Mental Illness in Jails Report

Until then, those who walk the walk behind the confines of incarceration, are left with a growing obligation.

Virginia Senate Bill 878, which is working its way through that chamber, would require local Community Services Boards to provide mental health treatment in jails.

There's a similar bill working its way through the House of Delegates, (HB 1487.)

Sheriff Stolle calls these developments  "common sense solutions" to one of the most pressing mental health problems in our community.

Letter to Sheriff from Sisson Family:

Sheriff Stolle,

I want to take the time to thank you for your compassion and empathy with regard to my brother in law’s death while incarcerated. My husband, Lloyd E Sisson, Joe’s brother, was understandably devastated and shaken upon hearing of his brother’s death, as was his only surviving sister, Dorothy Pettit. However, we appreciate how you so aptly pointed out that correctional facilities are not meant to be mental health wards. We are grateful for the condolences you publicly extended to his family and friends. We live in Florida, and Dorothy lives in Delaware.  From long distance we googled, researched, made phone calls and did whatever we found within our means to simply try to help Joe. As you correctly stated, and again we appreciate your candor, the system in Virginia- with regard to the mentally ill- certainly is broken. Tragically, people are literally losing their lives due to this neglect/ collapse within the system.

Sincerely,

Sybil Sisson

Palm Bay, Florida

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