Mental Health Jail

El Paso County Deputy Billie Mahan works in the maximum security area for women at the county jail.

State spending on mental health care for prison inmates has nearly quadrupled in the past two decades. Expenditures on the Colorado Department of Corrections’ “mental health subprogram” increased from about $4.4 million in fiscal year 2000-01 to nearly $17 million in fiscal year 2017-18, the department reports. Subprogram expenses include mental health clinician salaries and contracts for psychiatric services but do not cover the cost of psychiatric medications.

Nationwide, jails spend 2 to 3 times more on inmates who require mental health care than on inmates who don’t have those needs, the National Association of Counties estimates. El Paso County does not track exactly how much taxpayer money is spent caring for mentally ill inmates in its jail, but the county paid its medical contractor more than $7.4 million last year for inmate health care services.

Holding mentally ill people inside jails is more expensive than treating them in the community, research has shown. In Detroit, housing a mentally ill person in jail costs about $31,000 a year, but the same person could be getting treatment in the community for about $10,000 a year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


As people with mental illness cram into jails and prisons, correctional facilities nationwide are facing harrowing claims of neglect. Here are some cases that have resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts:

  • Jamycheal Mitchell

    Mitchell, 24, was being held for stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store when he died of heart failure and weight loss at a Virginia jail in 2015. He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and had been ordered to a state mental hospital for treatment, but never made it onto the waiting list for a bed. In January, his family won a $3 million settlement from the jail, the state, and the jail’s former correctional health care provider.

  • Andrew Holland

    Holland, a 36-year-old man with schizophrenia, died of an embolism after he was strapped in a restraint chair for 46 hours at the San Luis Obispo County jail in 2017. The California county settled a lawsuit brought by his family for $5 million.

  • Michael Marshall
    Marshall, 50, died days after he choked on his own vomit and lost consciousness while pinned to the floor by deputies during a mental breakdown at Denver’s downtown jail in 2015. His family sued and was awarded a nearly $5 million payout. Denver also pledged to improve its jail's policies regarding the treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Sources: The Associated Press, San Luis Obispo Tribune, The Denver Post

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