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Va. mental health debate expands to inmates

Sunday - 1/19/2014, 6:36pm  ET

WASHINGTON - The debate on improving Virginia's mental health system is now expanding to include inmates.

The deinstitutionalization of Virginia's mental hospitals is turning into the reinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in jails and prisons, says Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) as reported by The Richmond Times Dispatch.

Deeds says it's time for lawmakers to take ownership of the issue of mental health, including dealing with the jails. The senator is adamant about fixing the system following the heartbreaking and recent death of his son, Austin "Gus" Deeds, 24.

He wasn't able to get the emergency mental health care he needed and took his own life.

Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle says you can't have a serious conversation about mental illness without talking about the jails.

"When you figure that almost 20 percent of my inmates are mentally ill, there's some significant problem there," Stolle tells WTOP.

Stolle says when he ran for sheriff, he didn't realize that he would be one of the largest mental health providers in the Commonwealth.

But the problem of the mentally ill in jails and prisons is not a problem unique to Virginia. It's happening across the country.

"The jails have become the provider of last resort for the mentally ill," Stolle says.

He says when he was first elected as sheriff, he thought it was a really bad idea to have a large number of mentally ill people in jail. However, now he takes a different approach.

"I think it's probably a good thing because we're able to identify who the people are and identify the services they need."

He says that's where the state has to step up to the plate and come up with money for the treatment for these inmates. And just as important, the state has to figure out how inmates can continue mental health care once they are out of jail, Stolle says.

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