Do Justice: Jail is no place for those with mental illness

By Donna Weinberger, Thomas Nobbe & Liz Gauntner

“Dad I’m not going to make it here. I’m going to go crazy. You got to get me out of here.” This was the last time Johnny Kiekisz would speak to his family.  He was calling from Cuyahoga County Jail after being arrested for failing to show up to court to address a misdemeanor ticket he got for panhandling (cleveland.com).  Days later, he died by suicide.  Kiekisz is one of nine people to die in the Jail since last year.

When police pick up someone struggling with mental health or addiction issues, usually for misdemeanors like loitering or urinating in public, they can take that person either to the psych ER and wait, often hours, for them to be seen.  Or they can take the person to jail, with potentially severe repercussions to their mental health.

In 2016 Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), a coalition that includes SEUCC, toured the Cuyahoga County Jail and did research on how to improve conditions there.  Since then, the group has been pushing for a pre-booking mental health and addiction crisis intervention center, where police could take people to get appropriate treatment instead of jail. It is estimated that pre-booking crisis intervention centers can reduce the booking of mentally ill and/or addicted individuals by up to 80%, vastly reducing contact with the criminal justice system as well as the need for so many jail and prison facilities.

Crisis Centers have already been successful in reducing the number of people in jails in other places.  For example, in Dade County (Miami, Florida), a diversion model that has diverted over 4,000 mentally ill and addicted people from the county jail into treatment.  Dade County has literally been able to close a jail and rehab it into a treatment center.

In Bexar County (San Antonio, Texas), a coalition of stakeholders from the justice and mental health community came together to create the Restoration Center.  The Center includes a Sobering Unit, A Detox Center, and a Crisis Center that accepts drop-off by law enforcement. The Restoration Center has diverted over 100,000 people from jail and saved the county 100 million dollars over eight years.

GCC’s work is starting to pay off, and the newly proposed County budget now includes funding for a Crisis Center. Please join us in advocating for a Crisis Center in Cuyahoga County!

A recent Teach-In hosted by SEUCC and Forest Hill Presbyterian on GCC’s work around Crisis Centers

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