A mental health crisis coverup in Colorado jails

A mental health crisis coverup in Colorado jails


Around 100 mentally ill inmates are waiting in jail for psychiatric treatment, some for as long as six months, before their cases can be tried. What’s the delay? The state’s only forensic psychiatry unit is slogging through a waitlist that’s been backlogged for more than 15 years.

Many of these inmates will serve more time in jail time waiting for trial than they would have if they had pled guilty and served out a maximum sentence, according to Disability Law Colorado, a non-profit advocating for the developmentally disabled.

Disability Law Colorado watchdogs the state Department of Human Services, which promised, after a 2012 federal settlement, that detainees needing mental health care would be admitted to Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo within 28 days of a court order.

Mid-July, criminal defense attorney Iris Eytan learned that a colleague’s client marked “admitted” on hospital records had been languishing without treatment in jail.

Following up on what could have been an administrative error, Eytan heard from dozens of inmates, their families, attorneys and a judge whose stories showed DHS wasn’t living up to its promise and that inmates were being jailed well over 28 days.

Disability Law Colorado then audited CMHIP’s monthly reports to find discrepancies as far back as March 2015. Attorneys discovered CMHIP had a policy to admit no more than one patient a day.

Eytan said that for much of the summer, Department of Human Services attorneys denied the policy and that the hospital had a backlogged waiting list.

Attorneys for Disability Law Colorado and DHS tried to resolve the matter outside court, but talks crumbled. So the law center penned a motion to ask the court to re-open and enforce the 2012 settlement.

“They didn’t even know the extent of the problem. We still don’t even know the full extent,” she said.

Spokesman for the Department of Human Services Lee Rasizer would not comment on these allegations.

The motion to re-open the case includes disturbing stories. Take the experience of a schizophrenic man referred to as J.L.

He was charged with verbal harassment and misdemeanor menacing after going off his medication. He was jailed in Elbert County in May.

His public defender called for a competency evaluation in June, an outpatient report was submitted to the court in July, and J.L. was ordered to CMHIP for restorative treatment in August.

Since then, CMHIP pushed back his admittance date from October to November to December.

As of October 1, J.L. had been waiting in jail to get into CMHIP for 90 days — well above the upper legal limit of 28 days.

“J.L. has been un-medicated for so long and is so delusional that if provided a public recognizance bond without support from a community mental health provider, because his mental illness has overtaken him he will be derelict on the streets or he will pick up new charges and end up back in jail,” wrote Doug Wilson, head of Colorado Public Defenders in an affidavit.

CMHIP is not the only mental health center judges could refer inmates to. There are 17 community health centers willing and ready, but judges mostly ignore them, said Doyle Forrestal, CEO of Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council.

“For example, if a person is non-violent and low risk, that would be a the type of individual we could take care of in the community,” Forrestal explained. “It would be better for the person, for the state, and it would cost less. This shift would reserve the hospital beds for the people with more severe symptoms and needs.”

Sending mentally ill inmates to community mental health centers could diffuse the crisis. But doing so wouldn’t change the fact that mental health is still severely underfunded and understaffed, Forrestal said.

“And that’s not a just Colorado problem — it’s a problem nationwide,” she said. “You would think after all the high-profile shootings, we’d start taking mental health more seriously […] And we are starting to recognize that prevention is better than letting things get to the criminal system. But there’s obviously a lot more we could do.”

A paper trail shows state employees knew about the impending problem as early as the late 90s. Now, CMHIP is facing a rise in forensic referrals without enough beds or staff to accommodate patients.

“It is undeniable that the system has collapsed,” the law center’s filing states. “But, it also undeniable that the reason for the collapse is not due to unanticipated or special circumstances.”

“This is not some revelation,” plaintiff attorney Iris Eytan said. “And it will keep spiraling out of control if we don’t do something about it.”


“Bars” by Alberto …. , Creative Commons, via Flickr

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About the Author

Nat Stein

Nat Stein is a Denver-based reporter. Check out her other work at Cipher magazine, KRCC public radio, Jacobin magazine and In These Times.

1 Comment

  1. Bonnie Sauer on said:

    Bravo for speaking on behalf of this growing issue and the inmates and the families affected by this problem. Mental illness has been swept under the rug for too many years and victims of this illness are not getting treatment. Not much has changed from the days when they were thrown in asylums and forgotten.

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