Editorial: Managing Mental Illness in Jails

Editorial: Managing Mental Illness in Jails

Natasha McKenna’s death provides window on national concern.

A national report released on Feb. 11 highlighted the prevalence of people with mental illness incarcerated in local jails.

“Serious mental illness, which includes bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression, affects an estimated 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails — rates that are four to six times higher than in the general population. … While most people with serious mental illness in jails, both men and women, enter jail charged with minor, nonviolent crimes, they end up staying in jail for longer periods of time.” See vera.org.

Natasha McKenna, a woman with a long history of severe mental illness, died on Feb. 8, five days after being repeatedly shocked with a taser, restrained, hooded and forcibly removed from her cell by six deputy sheriffs “pursuant to its protocols for managing combative inmates.”

McKenna, a small woman according to press reports, had been held in the Fairfax County Detention Center since Jan. 26, on a warrant from the City of Alexandria. Fairfax deputies were forcibly extracting her from her cell so she could be transported to the Alexandria jail.

Here is part of the police release on the incident:

“During the struggle to restrain McKenna, a member of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team deployed a conducted energy weapon (Taser) on McKenna. While being restrained, deputies placed a spit net (which is designed to restrict and prevent spitting) on McKenna. A nurse from the ADC medical staff was present at that time to check on her prior to transport and cleared her for transport. Deputies attempted to put her in a medical transport chair, but McKenna continued to be combative and was moved to a restraint chair for transport.”

To understand a little of what was happening, search for images of “spit net” and “prisoner restraint chair.”

When the emergency response team was getting ready to load McKenna into a vehicle, “medical personnel from the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office checked McKenna and determined she was experiencing a medical emergency.”

McKenna never regained consciousness.

The incident was recorded on video, but “the video is currently retained as evidence by detectives from the Fairfax County Police Department and will not be released at this time.”

Less than two weeks after McKenna’s death, the public knows a lot more about the details of this incident than previous cases involving the Fairfax County Police, but questions of what happened, how and why, greatly outnumber answers.

It is standard operating procedure in the United States to warehouse disruptive people with mental illness in jails. A 2006 Special Report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails, according to the National Institute for Corrections.

We have to ask what constitutes humane, effective treatment for people with mental illness, and often substance use disorders, who end up in jails. Are the brutal images of Natasha McKenna’s handling a common experience for people with severe mental illness in jails? While deaths resulting from such incidents are rare, they do occur. What can be done to provide treatment?