JACKSON — The leader of the organization representing Mississippi’s 82 county sheriffs told state lawmakers on Tuesday that one of the main problems the Magnolia State’s law enforcement officers encounter is how to handle people with mental illness inside their prisons.
“I can tell you my jail was not designed to hold mental patients,” Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan said. “They don't need to be there.”
Pollan, also the president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, testified before a House committee that each time a group of sheriffs convene for a conference, almost all of them end up complaining that their organizations are not equipped to handle people with mental illness.
"I do not know what the answer is,” Pollan said. “I do know that the system is broken.”
Pollan’s testimony aligns with how a court-appointed federal monitor of the state’s mental health system, Dr. Michael Hogan, has also described the mental health system.
In his latest report released in September, Hogan highlighted that an average of 25 individuals with mental illness were sitting in a jail waiting for a hospital. Hogan called this a “clearly unacceptable pattern.”
Nearly all of the people who testified before the committee painted a picture of a byzantine system that allows for chancery court judges to commit sick people to jail or mental health treatment, chancery clerks to have their own system for aiding judges to make decisions and community health centers to all operate within their own silos.
“We don't have parity in services,” said Angela Ladner, director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association. “When you go into a county, you can experience something completely different completely dependent upon the county you enter in. And that is inadequate.”
Another pattern that emerged from the hearing was a new system of “court liaisons,” employees of community mental health centers who interface with the court system on behalf of patients and are useful to judges and clerks.
State officials recently rolled out a pilot program of placing the liaisons in select areas of the state, with hopes of expanding the officials statewide.
“A court liaison helps divert people on the front end,” said Will Ruff, grant administrator for LIFECORE health in Northeast Mississippi.
Finding ways to divert people with mental illness to community based treatment is key because it's the sole reason Mississippi is in the middle of a lengthy federal lawsuit over its mental health system.
The Department of Justice filed suit against the state in 2016 alleging that state officials were unnecessarily segregation people into state hospitals, instead of allowing them to seek treatment in the community.
A panel of judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to rule on parts of the lawsuit in the next few months.
Wendy Bailey, director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, acknowledged that people with mental illness should not be housed in prisons and that the state agency she oversees could do a better job diverting those people to community treatment. But she also believes her agency has made progress in recent years.
Bailey, who became director in November 2020, said Mississippi has one of the best track records in the nation for answering emergency calls for mental health crisis and that wait times for people to receive treatment at state hospitals is slowly decreasing.
Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, is the leader of the subcommittee examining the intersection of mental health in the criminal justice system, and he said lawmakers could introduce several pieces of mental health-related legislation during the 2023 session, which begins Jan. 3.
One bill the Union County lawmaker said he would likely introduce is placing court liaisons throughout the state to build on the pilot program.
"I think we have a lot of the resources already here in the state of Mississippi, but they're not all working together in concert,” Creekmore said. “And to get that going will make a big difference."