Sunday, October 1, 2023

Medicating with discipline: How VPRJ tends to its mentally ill (Free read)

(WYDaily File Photo)
(WYDaily File Photo)

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In his nearly 30 years as Hampton’s sheriff and a member of the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board, B.J. Roberts has watched the correctional system change its approach when it comes to the incarceration of people with mental illnesses.

“We saw a trend that we didn’t realize would be so devastating and would become a part of [corrections],” he said in a previous interview. “I think that [mental health] is the most dramatic, overwhelming movement that has taken place since ’92 and with the acknowledgment from the community that it is a problem.”

Without the resources to medically support them in Hampton City Jail, Roberts said inmates who have been identified at their intake physical as having a mental illness diagnosis are transferred and housed at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.

More than 400 inmates are currently housed in VPRJ. The facility also serves York County, Poquoson, James City County, and Williamsburg.

VPRJ is in transition as Deputy Superintendent/Lt. Col. Roy C. Witham comes into the role of superintendent after Tony Pham retired in December.

RELATED STORY: There’s a new superintendent at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail

A mental health survey from June 2018 reported to Virginia’s Compensation Board nearly 8,000 inmates in the state were identified as having a mental illness that month.

Out of the approximately 90 inmates counted at VPRJ in that survey, about a third were categorized as having a “serious mental illness” to include schizophrenia or delusional disorder, bipolar disorder or major depressive, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other inmates were documented as having mild depression, anxiety disorder, mentally ill with no diagnosis, and “other mental illness.”

Sara Mahayni, a spokeswoman at VPRJ, said even though the facility doesn’t have any “formal programs” available for mentally ill inmates, there is access to a qualified mental health provider and a remote psychologist who evaluate and treat patients with medication and counseling,

“VPRJ security and medical staff are also trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness,” she said. “In the event they suspect an inmate may be suffering from mental illness, the mental health provider is alerted so that an assessment of the inmate can occur and treatment can begin if needed.”

Mahayni said continuing medical treatment or “fully rehabilitating” mentally ill inmates in a transient jail population can be difficult “as opposed to prisons which house inmates with much longer sentences.”

Once the inmates are released, VPRJ can only “encourage” a former inmate to contact their local Community Services Board to set up an appointment and continue their mental health care — six to eight weeks later.

“The period of time between when someone is released and when they can see a mental health provider can be contentious and stressful for an individual who relies on medications to properly treat their mental illness,” Mahayni said.

As a way to bridge the gap in care, jail policy allows an inmate who is reliant on medication to take the remaining doses with them once they’re released or even receive a full 30-day supply, granted they’re assigned a probation officer before they’re released.

Roberts has said he’s seen over the years how far community resources have progressed in the early identification and intervention of mental illness which could ultimately lessen the population of those who become incarcerated.

But there’s still a ways to go when it comes to first providing services to enable families to care for loved ones with mental illnesses or special needs.

“I’m talking about kids even in pre-school…if you can identify that you have a student who has some kind of mental disorder, or family disorder, or both, what do you do with it? Is it always disciplining that person?” he said.

Editor’s note 2: This is the last installment in a three-part series looking at mental health.

Follow the series:

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