As the battle over gun regulation continues, the argument most promoted as an alternative to gun restrictions is the need to do more about mental health. National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre, last December, making the case: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed.”
As a gun-rights state second to none, Idaho might be expected to go after the matter of mental health in a more serious way. As a matter of policymaking, concerns about mental health per se might be a hard sell, but propping up the argument on guns would seem to be front burner … if problem-solving really is of much interest.
Idaho hasn’t been doing (yet) what its neighbor to the south, Nevada, reportedly has been doing of late: Packing mentally ill patients on Greyhound buses and sending them to the other 49 states (1,500 or so from the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Center at Las Vegas). But ....
In February, the Idaho Department of Correction, which had been seeking approval for a secure mental health facility containing 579 beds — a substantial percentage of people behind bars in Idaho as elsewhere have serious mental issues — dropped the proposal. The department said, “Director Brent Reinke decided to withdraw the proposal while the agency works with the Department of Health and Welfare, the courts, the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission and other stakeholders on developing a plan for addressing broader issues.”
Could that be a longer version of: “Let’s form a committee”? That would cost less than the facility.
The department outsources medical care, physical and mental, at the correctional institutions, and its current contractor is Corizon, of Brentwood, Tenn. It’s a big company, providing services at 349 correctional facilities in 29 states. But as with the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs one of Idaho’s prisons, there have been issues.
Last week, the Board of Correction chose to continue its Corizon contract, now valued at $27 million annually, just until January rather than for a full year. It will also solicit other bids. There were prompts for this: Idaho fined Corizon for missing benchmarks, and a federal lawsuit has added pressure for improvements. The Associated Press said in one story last week that “a federally appointed expert concluded its medical care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.”
Just what you want to hear about prisoners who one day, sooner or later, will again be walking Idaho’s streets, some of them with firearms in hand.
In Idaho, about 54,000 adults and 18,000 children have serious mental conditions; there were 222 suicides in Idaho in 2006, many attributable to mental illness. In 2008, about 17,000 of adults behind bars in Idaho had serious mental disorders (which mostly, probably, got worse under those conditions.) In the state, about 16 percent of adults with serious mental problems get help from public mental health services. There are services, but pressure from budget cuts has been crimping them more and more.
Added up, improvements in mental health treatment begin to look no more likely in Idaho than new gun regulation.
Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide and co-author of Idaho 100: The people who most Influenced the Gem State, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.