Vermont Looks To Improve Mental Health Care In Its State Prisons

Nov 22, 2016

Vermont is taking a hard look at how it treats people with mental illness in its prisons.

Earlier this year lawmakers put a committee together to make recommendations on how the state might better treat offenders with mental illness, and make sure they have a clear path toward re-integration when they're released from prison.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen, the chairman of the Commission on Offenders with Mental Illness, says expanding the state's mental health court system could be a way of preventing people with mental illness from ending up in prison at all.

"What we're trying to do is see if we can identify how to divert more people who have serious mental health, serious developmental disabilities or traumatic brain injuries from the correctional facilities in the first place," he says.

But offenders with mental illness do end up in prison, and the committee made clear that real change will not come without substantial investments.

Expanding the mental health court, improving the therapeutic spaces inside the prisons and supporting offenders as they try to re-integrate into the community will all cost money.

"I think what the commission has found is that there are things that we can do that are improving the system at very low or no cost, and then there are things that we do have to make investments," Cohen says. "And those investments in the long run, I think, will save the state funds."

The commission was put together to try to get a snapshot of the mental health needs within the Department of Corrections.

"What happens in the community directly affects what happens in prison. And I also think that the mental health system overall is in such crisis that it's bringing the issue to a forefront." — A.J. Ruben, Disability Rights Vermont supervising attorney

And the preliminary report, which was issued this month, shows that there's a lot of work to do just to understand the scope of the issue.

One problem is a lack of data. The Department of Corrections currently doesn't record or track inmates with developmental disabilities or traumatic brain injury.

And the commission found that the prison system might need to develop consistent and reliable screening and definitions of mental disabilities before gaining a better understanding of the problem.

A.J. Ruben is supervising attorney with Disability Rights Vermont, and he's a member of the commission. Ruben says people with mental health needs too often end up in segregation because they can't get the care they need.

And he says the closing of Vermont State Hospital put pressure on the entire mental health system.

"What happens in the community directly affects what happens in prison," Ruben says. "And I also think that the mental health system overall is in such crisis that it's bringing the issue to a forefront, not just for services in prison, but how to maintain a robust system to keep people out and get them out sooner."

The Commission on Offenders with Mental Illness will submit its full report to the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee before Dec. 15.