Legislation Could Expand Jail Mental Health Services

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced legislation earlier this month that could improve mental health and other health care services at local jails across the country. The legislation aims to expand the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) program to also include county and municipal correctional facilities, serving a larger swath of the 64 percent of jail inmates currently suffering from mental health conditions.

County and municipal correctional facilities are increasingly forced to serve as mental health providers to inmates completing extended sentences. Chicago’s Cook County Jail houses roughly 9,000 inmates and is now one of the largest providers of mental health services in the country. Cermak Health Services, which is operated by Cook County and based in the Cook County Jail, estimates that approximately 2,500 inmates require medical attention at any given time. These inmates are diagnosed with health conditions at a drastically higher rate than the general population.

Additionally, as many mentally ill inmates return to disadvantaged neighborhoods after completing their sentences, expanding and improving health care services at local jails — especially mental and behavioral health services — will help reduce recidivism and improve public safety, according to a statement by Durbin’s office.

The NHSC places health care professionals in medically underserved areas in return for student loan assistance. Participants are generally required to make a two-year commitment to the program, providing primary care, oral health and behavioral health services to community mental health centers, free clinics, school-based clinics and other medically underserved facilities. Last year, more than 9,200 primary care, dental and behavior and mental health professionals were members of the NHSC, providing care at 4,900 medically underserved sites, including state and federal prisons. By expanding the NHSC, Durbin said, county and municipal jails can better attract highly qualified behavioral and medical health professionals.

“Even if someone is incarcerated, they are still entitled to necessary medical care. The National Health Service Corps has improved access to health care for thousands of Illinoisans in medically underserved areas, including our state and federal prisons,” Durbin said. “Local jails like the Cook County Department of Corrections are serving larger prisoner populations with increasingly long sentences and high rates of mental illness. Improving local jails’ ability to recruit skilled, committed healthcare professionals and expand their inmates’ access to behavioral health services and other healthcare will help reduce recidivism and improve public safety. State and federal prisons are already included in this program for these very reasons. It is only logical to include county and municipal correctional facilities as well.”

Durbin’s legislation has received support from a number of mental health advocacy organizations, including the National Association of Community Health Centers, the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved, the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the American Psychiatric Association.