Lehigh County needs to help mentally ill people, not lock them up – The Morning Call

Imagine this headline: “Dozens locked up in Lehigh County Jail because they suffer from epilepsy.”

Surely, thousands would descend upon the jail to protest. Yet we are silent about persons jailed who suffer from mental illness. One in 4 people in jail is severely mentally ill. In fact, jails and prisons have become our primary mental health hospitals for the poor, and LCJ is no exception.

So what happens when a jail is asked to stand in for a hospital? When a person who desperately needs help is held in a place that offers none? Consider the story of a client of mine. I’ll call her Jane.

In the throes of paranoid psychosis, Jane parked her car at a house to which she had no connection. Homeowners called police. Bethlehem police officer Ralph Gontz arrived and, as he told me a year later, determined immediately that Jane was mentally ill. He took her to LVH-Muhlenberg’s emergency room. That was the last kindness bestowed upon Jane by two systems — medical and justice — that failed her at every turn.

Suffering delusions of being kidnapped, Jane resisted efforts to restrain her and bit an attendant. Finally, she was sedated and effectively restrained. Unfortunately, in the meantime, police arrived and consulted the Lehigh County district attorney for guidance. Charge or not charge, that was the question for the DA.

According to court documents, the DA’s office directed police to charge felony aggravated assault for Jane’s unruliness and biting. I requested information about this decision, but was succinctly informed by DA Jim Martin that Jane’s “case is closed and the defendant was represented by competent counsel from the public defender’s office throughout.” He gave no other information.

Typical manifestations of paranoid disorder are distrust of others and the tendency to be “hostile, stubborn and argumentative” — precisely Jane’s symptoms.

The tragic irony is that Jane was exactly where she needed to be to receive treatment. Instead, she was removed from the hospital and deposited into a jail cell. Why? For exhibiting symptoms that are a textbook description of her affection.

Waking up in that cold jail cell, clutching a “suicide blanket,” Jane couldn’t recall how she got there. Continuing to battle her demons, at one point she was maced by guards, again for exhibiting symptoms of her illness. Guards lack training to deal with severely mentally ill inmates. That’s what a hospital is for.

In the clutches of the justice system, Jane’s nightmare began in earnest. This severely mentally ill woman suffered in solitary confinement for five months until a plea deal was struck: aggravated assault was dropped for her plea to a misdemeanor assault. Note that the sentencing guidelines for simple assault permitted probation.

Five months in solitary confinement, huddled in the dark corners creates mental illness. Imagine your loved one in that cell. But after five months, at least she’d be free, right? wrong

Although the Judge sentenced Jane to time served, she was not released. Why? Because she had no home to return to, having lost it due to the five months in jail. With no home, Jane could not complete her “home plan” for parole. She languished in her cell for another two months.

Jane’s case is not an outlier with regard to the “home plan” issue. A reliable Lehigh County official told me that at any given time 50-90 citizens — who have served the sentence the judge ordered — nonetheless remain incarcerated because they have no home.

I have recommended solutions. Lehigh has space for “transitional housing” at the work release center that currently lies vacant, or the juvenile center, which is 80% empty. No action has been taken to create housing solutions or to build mental health centers.

Taxpayers spend $100 per day to incarcerate someone like Jane. Of every tax dollar, 71 cents go to “law and order”; 5 cents go to social service helping actions. As the saying goes, a budget is a moral document. What does this spending disparity say about us as a people?

Jane will never get back those seven months she missed with her two beautiful children. These systems owe Jane and countless others an apology and, more importantly, an overhaul of practices in how those suffering the pain of mental illness are treated.

Lehigh County has $10 million available from American Rescue Plan funds. Solutions to the mental health and housing crises exist. Leaders must pursue a path of compassion to resolve these issues.

Here’s a thought: In addition to plans to build high-end apartments and cushy coffee shops on the 195 acres of the former Allentown State Hospital, let’s devote a few of those acres for mental health and transitional housing — for helping hands, instead of hand cuffs and cages.

Ettore J. Angelo is a criminal defense attorney in the Lehigh Valley.

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