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U.S. County Jails Step Up Mental Health Screening to Keep Inmates from Coming Back

Side Effects Public Media

By Christine Herman

DeVonte Jones began to show signs of schizophrenia as a teenager. His first public episode was nine years ago at a ball game at Wavering Park in Quincy, Illinois.

“He snapped out and just went around and started kicking people,” said Jones’ mother Linda Colon, who now lives in Midlothian in the Chicago suburbs.

The police were called. Jones was arrested, charged with aggravated battery and placed in Adams County Jail. Colon said Jones had no recollection of what happened.

Her son got out on probation and went to therapy. He started on medications, but Colon said they didn’t help. When he got caught self-medicating with marijuana, he ended up back in jail.

Jones has been in and out of jail ever since. He’s among the estimated half a million people who are incarcerated in the U.S. and have a mental illness.

In recent years, county jails across the nation have taken steps to try to keep inmates with mental illness, like Jones, from coming back. One approach involves stepped up mental health screening, coupled with efforts to get inmates plugged into community-based treatment after they are released. Such efforts require often-unprecedented collaboration between those on the frontlines of mental health and criminal justice. But research shows such collaboration is key to addressing the problems many jails face when they become their communities’ largest psychiatric facilities.

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