RICHMOND, VA (WTVR) – Officials say a staggering number of mentally ill people are winding up in jails in Central Virginia and across the country.
Chad Western, 29, says he can hardly remember life before the downward spiral that led him to the mental illness unit of the Henrico County jail.
"Everything kind of went to hell," said Western. "I was buying and selling drugs, running with the wrong crowd."
Western has spent the past decade coming and going from jail.
Early on he was diagnosed with mental illness. He’s being treated for bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. The condition results in extreme depression, distortions in perceptions and hallucinations.
“If I could get something to help me focus, something to help me calm my nerves so I could sleep, I could just be at peace,” said Western.
Western has been to half a dozen doctors, tried different medications and returned repeatedly to the same place. He finds himself trapped and troubled in solitary confinement.
"When I'm off my medication I feel normal, when I'm on my medication I feel all foggy like I'm floating," said Western.
Western's story, like many other inmates, shows a cycle where people with mental illness make the same mistakes and never understand the underlying problem.
"It's been a repeated cycle back and forth, back and forth," said 64-year-old inmate Alfonse Taylor.
Since age fourteen, Taylor has been charged more than 80 times. It’s been for mostly petty crimes like larceny and trespassing. Now he's spent more of his life in jail than outside it. He comes back because it is where he says he feels safe.
"I do have a mental problem," said Taylor.
It’s a mental health problem that Richmond Sheriff CT Woody says is hurting communities.
"Jails all over America are the dumping ground for those who are mentally ill," said Woody.
The Sheriff blames the downsizing mental hospitals saying they have run out of places to put the mentally ill who commit crimes. Virginia has slashed $38 million in the last four years for mental health services. One of the largest reductions of its kind in the country in that time period.
"This is no place for them to be. It's all about the money and the money is not there," said Woody.
Woody claims they end up in a hopeless place by default.
"It's unfair to them because they get worse they do not get better here at the Richmond City Jail," said Woody.
Richmond jail administrators say it can take six months for an inmate to get a mental evaluation. In addition, medications are given but often refused by inmates – and personalized therapy is not available.
Woody says it is not the jail's role to treat mental illness, but that jail staff do try with what resources they have available. If they don’t the inmates will likely end up in another nearby jail like Henrico.
"You have what we refer to as frequent flyers in that area they come back over and over again," said Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade.
Wade echoes much of what Woody describes. Wade says he has more resources to help those in Henrico custody.
Unlike Richmond his jail has a separate unit for the mentally ill and last year the county spent $730,000 on mental health staff and psychotropic medications for the inmates. Even with the extra support, Wade claims problems still exist.
"You realize that while they're on their medications they're fine, but they get off their medication and they go back to the strange behavior that brought them here," he said.
That strange behavior was obvious in our conversation with Western from his solitary cell. He went from laughter to moments later in tears when his interview was ending.
Estimates show about 25 percent of inmates at the Richmond City Jail have serious mental problems. In Henrico, estimates show around 15 percent of inmates are mentally ill. That costs taxpayers about $20,000 a year, per inmate, to keep them jailed.
"These people are going to get out and what would you rather they be, a better criminal or a better citizen," said Woody.
Jail leaders say crimes should be punished and that not all mentally ill criminals belong on the streets. Their solution is to identify mental illness and treat it before it requires a jail sentence and to provide more care. Additionally, there would be more follow up for those who serve time and are released. They believe with a little of both, a huge societal problem could be changed and a costly cycle could come to an end.
"The reality is they're everybody's mother brother sister husband wife, it touches everyone in community," said Wade. "I've got a lot of goals in my life and we don't have much time," he said through the clear glass window in his cell.