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S.C. jail death shines light gaps in treatment of people with mental health

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 7:55 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Mental health advocates say the events leading up to the death of Jamal Sutherland are exposing critical gaps in how law enforcement handles people with mental illness.

“This has brought to the forefront that we really can’t keep talking about it, we need to do something,” said Robert Aitcheson, executive director of the Charleston Area Alliance for Mental Health.

Sutherland was just one of around 2 million people with a mental illness who are booked into South Carolina jails each year, according to National Alliance for Mental Health data.

“The hope would be that Mr. Sutherland would’ve been somehow sedated enough to where they could’ve restrained him and kept him in a secure psychiatric facility,” Aitchenson said. “It’s just haunting when you think about what must’ve been the fear and the pain that was going on so we just we want to be here, we want to be a resource to the community.”

Dr. Hayden Smith, criminology professor with the University of South Carolina, said jails have become all too common first-resorts for low-level offenders that may be struggling with mental illnesses.

“The criminal justice system which we know is set up for justice, control and security has become a default mental health system for a portion of our society,” Smith said.

He said parts of the problems lie in understaffing at detention facilities and lack of continuous mental health training among law enforcement officers.

“In South Carolina for example two-thirds of our female inmates have a diagnosable mental health condition and in the male population, it’s about 30 to 40 percent,” Smith said. “We have, over the years, worked on crisis intervention teams and they’ve been successful. About 10 to 20 percent of all police officers receive some sort of training.”

Aitcheson said that’s not nearly enough.

“Putting funding into providing clinicians for law-enforcement and that goes both ways because the officers that are involved in situations experienced trauma as well and they also need to understand how to perceive the trauma that they’re coming into when they come to a mental health crisis,” Aitcheson said.

NAMI is pushing local and state legislators to invest in preventative measures like having clinicians on jail staff, additional Crisis Intervention Training and infrastructure that would allow mentally ill patients safer, immediate alternative options.

“But these things take money. That’s the basic, end result of all of this,” Aitcheson said. “That’s why we are a fund-raising organization, that’s why there’s a lot of us out there and that’s why we do it.”

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