For the Mentally Troubled, a Pennsylvania Jail Offers ‘High-Visibility’ Cells

The Crime Report

By Eric Jankiewicz

As director of nursing at the health unit of Pennsylvania’s Butler County jail, Ashley Adams offers one of the few resources in the county for people suffering from disabling illnesses of the mind.

She remembers one young man who was an inmate of the prison from August to December. “He didn’t belong here,” Adams said, explaining that he was originally a patient at Butler Memorial Hospital and suffered from a bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The hospital couldn’t offer him long-term care and when they demanded he leave, the young man refused, prompting hospital officials to call the police.

Adams said the man became so agitated by the time the police arrived that he hit the officers. He was eventually sentenced to a jail term for aggravated assault. “We’re dealing with an underserved population,” Adams said. “They are just people too, but they need help; they need medical care.”

Ten years after Butler County Prison was built, officials continue to look for ways to deal with inmates suffering from mental health issues, a task that isn’t inherent to a system tasked with punishment, not therapy.

There are anywhere from 75 to 100 inmates—more than 30 percent of the jail’s population— who are on Ashley Adams’ health “radar.”

Adams, a health services administrator and registered nurse with the jail, said that these people could be suffering from a variety of conditions, from a mild anxiety disorder to a serious mental health diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

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