Courtesy photo

By Allie Kessel, Molly Muirhead, and Kaley Leshem

As prospective social workers, we find ourselves focusing on individuals who need help. The caveat is we often focus on the people in front of us. But what if the people who need help are behind bars?

We need Congress to pass the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015 in order for the government to recognize that jails can be traumatizing and even life threatening to individuals who suffer from mental illness.

Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility is an example of both the current state of mental health in jails as well as the potential of this act’s impact. Although Los Angeles has started the process of jail reform, policies are being implemented slowly at best — federal pressure has the potential to change this.

Twin Towers is simultaneously the world’s largest jail and the nation’s largest mental health facility. Seems like a detrimental combination. However, this is the reality in downtown Los Angeles for thousands of inmates who suffer from mental illness.

Correctional facilities are often the only place for inmates to receive mental health services, which often is immensely problematic for treating and improving symptoms.

According to Free Speech Radio News, formerly incarcerated Philip Cho has suffered from schizophrenia and a mood disorder for several years. In 2005, Cho spent nearly ten months in Twin Towers.

“At Twin Towers, what they do is, when I was processed through reception I told the deputy I was schizophrenic,” Cho explains. “The first thing he does is he handcuffs me through a bench, an isolated cell, and leaves me there for seven, eight hours. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t drink water, I couldn’t use the bathroom. Couldn’t do anything. That’s how they treat people with schizophrenia. I wasn’t violent. I wasn’t acting rude. I wasn’t acting out. I was just sitting.”

The lack of appropriately trained staff within Los Angeles County jails as well as the lack of public health care for mentally ill inmates creates a revolving door between jails and the streets for people like Cho. Once inside the jail system, those suffering from mental illness both require and deserve suitable treatment – not handcuffs.

As a result, if not handled properly, individuals who suffer from mental illness can take extreme measures. According to the United States Department of Justice, suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails in 2013, accounting for 34 percent of all jail deaths.

Brutal conditions like those Cho experienced have ultimately lead to reform, prompted by a federal investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office in late 2012.

Cindy Chang of the Los Angeles Times reported that several officers were convicted for “using excessive force or trying to conceal misconduct in the jails.” The investigation was beneficial as it reduced physical confrontation between officers and inmates and mandated appropriate treatment of inmates with mental illness.

Currently, the 2014 A Blueprint for Change, a jail-diversion plan by District Attorney Jackie Lacey, is attempting to reform the Los Angeles County’s broken jail system. Lacey’s plan will redirect low-level mentally ill offenders from jails to community-based treatment. Her plan will take about ten years to implement and will be extremely costly for the county.

The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (CJMHA) of 2015, a bipartisan act, has the potential to expedite these reforms and cut costs.

Though this is a federal bill, it has the potential to impact state policy. The outcome of the 2012 federal investigation into inmate abuse illustrates that federal pressure is effective in creating positive change within the Los Angeles County jail system.

It is an act “to increase public safety by facilitating collaboration among the criminal justice, juvenile justice, veterans’ treatment services, mental health treatment, and substance abuse systems” and mirrors much of the language in Lacey’s plan.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, it would “authorize the appropriation of $30 million” in grants annually over the next four years “to improve mental health services in the criminal justice system.”

This act will help save lives by improving treatment, reducing recidivism, and implementing training programs for officers focused on effectively responding to the mentally ill population. If this federal policy were to be implemented, we hope it would help shape the Los Angeles County jail system, keeping mentally ill inmates out of the vicious cycle that is incarceration.

The act’s sponsor, Junior Senator Al Franken, D-Minn, introduced the act, which was passed by the United States Senate on December 10, 2015. The act is now on its way to the House of Representatives where it will be voted on once again.

This is where we need you. Find your congressperson here. Write, tweet, contact them to pass this act and improve how Los Angeles regulates mental health.


Allie, Molly and Kaley are all first-year graduate students at the University of Southern California pursuing a Master of Social Work degree.