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Mental illness ‘is not a problem that we can arrest ourselves out of’

December 22, 2019

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, our Brief But Spectacular
segment focused on mental health from the perspective of a parent whose son was failed
by legal and mental health systems in Washington state. Tonight, we hear from the warden of Metro
County Jail in Mobile, Alabama, to get his take on how the mental health crisis affects
his operation. TREY OLIVER, Warden, Metro County Jail: With
our tongue in our cheek, we look at inmates sometimes and say, listen, life here is not
great. This is not a resort, it’s not a hotel, it’s
not a retreat, it’s not Burger King. You don’t get it your way, and we do not want
you to come back. So, we preface everything by saying, this
is less-than-ideal situations. The difference between a prison and a jail
is, essentially, in a prison, you are serving out your sentence that a judge has handed
down. For the most part, our population is here
awaiting to go to trial. The average stay for an inmate here at Metro
Jail would be about 17 days. Now, that is misleading when you first consider
it, because we have inmates that literally have been here for four-and-a-half years awaiting
to go to trials. And, typically, that would be facing a murder
trial. Working in any jail this size is a very hostile
work environment, sometimes worse than a prison, because, in a prison, the inmates are settled. We have court appearances, visitation, church
services. So there’s a lot of activity. This facility was originally designed for
less than 1,200 inmates. However, on a daily basis, we will have way
over 1,500. Sometimes, we will have four or five, six
and seven inmates in a cell designed for two people. We see inmates return on a very regular basis. Recidivism is probably around 50 to 60 percent. I try to, at least on a weekly basis, just
walk through the jail. They want my time, they want my attention,
and they will flag me down and ask me questions. MAN: We’re fighting five men to a cell around
here. Toilet is messed up. TREY OLIVER: Well, some places got seven men
to a cell. MAN: Yes, sir. Absolutely. TREY OLIVER: Consider yourself lucky. Obviously, in a hostile work environment like
this, we don’t have people knocking down our door to work for us. So we always are short-staffed. And, sometimes, you’re looking at one floor
officer will be responsible for anywhere from 150 to 300 individuals. The mentally ill poses a number of problems
for us. We feel very strongly that anyone suffering
from a serious mental illness shouldn’t be in a county jail. However, that happens on a regular basis. Because the state hospital is so backed up,
there’s no place for these people to go. When Alabama closed our only regional hospital,
we saw an immediate doubling of our mental health population. We will see the same mentally ill person arrested
for the same charge in the same location by the same police officer three, four and five
times. This is not a problem that we can arrest ourselves
out of. They need to be in a facility to where they
can receive around-the-clock care. Whoever was behind the closing of the mental
health hospitals, if they thought that was a good idea, I challenge them on that. They were concerned at the time that the mentally
ill were being warehoused in these hospitals. Well, I got news for everybody. The mentally ill are now being warehoused
in county jails across this country. My name is Trey Oliver, and this is my Brief
But Spectacular take on life here at Metro Jail in Mobile, Alabama. JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thank you for that perspective. Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular was produced
in collaboration with Jason Johnson. He’s a reporter for Lagniappe. That’s a weekly paper in Mobile, Alabama. You can find a special episode with Johnson
on our Web site at

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