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Understanding Mental Health Jail

I come across a lot of families that struggle navigating through the jail mental health system.  I remember one time I spoke with a family member desperate to keep his sibling in jail to avoid her from being discharged back to the street, back to her toxic boyfriend, and back to drugs.  Sadly, it happens a lot. When a person suffering from mental illness goes in and out of the jail system, sometimes it seems that the safest place for them to be is incarcerated. Or, depending on the joint, a worse place to be. There is a lot to know about jail when it comes to mental health, and I will do my best to explain aspects of it.

For starters, most jails are divided into two sections. The general population, aka “gen pop” and the mental health side. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an arrest, lets say the inmate is admitted to the mental health side, they have the right to privacy so often times family members can be left in the dark. This can be very frustrating for a loved one. Is my son getting medication? Will my daughter get a psych evaluation? How do I get ahold of the mental health clinician that is treating my brother?

It is a process. You call the jail and provide the name, DOB, and booking number of the person, and ask to speak to their clinician. If you are able to connect with the jail clinician, you can discuss the mental health history of your loved one, and information on medications. However, HIPPA requires that an inmate gives permission to allow information about their circumstances to be shared. Some inmates are fine with their loved ones knowing what is going on, others don’t want their family members access to any information, or even know that they are in jail to begin with or the circumstances surrounding their admission. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t give valuable input on the mental health history of your loved one. You might not be able to get information but you can give as much history as needed.

Similar to patients admitted to psych wards, getting information to the treatment team of a jail inmate is your right.  A loved one has the right to fax in medical and/or mental health history for the inmate, and offer a history of their medications. Any and all insight into the back story of an inmate can better assist to his needs in jail.

Once your loved one gets a court hearing, they will go in front of a judge at a mental health court. Again, you can provide information to the judge like the mental health history of the inmate, the circumstances that lead them to jail, and information about their behavior over the years. You don’t want to be left sitting in the court benches helpless and not heard. You can and do have the right to speak up for your loved one.

Depending on the judge, and the circumstances surrounding the case, they will receive a sentence that fits the crime. Or not. The system is not foul proof. Multiple factors determine the future of an inmate. What was the crime? Do they have a criminal record? What’s their mental health history? How did they act in jail? If they are well behaved chances are they will get the opportunity to have a job in jail, which always looks good in front of a judge.

The jail system is far from perfect. I see people get discharged from jail in the middle of the night to “self,” and end up wandering the streets with crime right at their finger tips. It doesn’t take much to fall back into old habits, and end up right back in a cell.  Like that family member that wants his sister to stay in jail to help stabilize her, and more or less work as a detox center, sometimes that is the best place for them at the time. I’ve seen inmates get transferred from one jail to another depending on availability. It is much like where a person ends up when they are put on a hold aka 5150.  Usually the ambulance will go to the nearest hospital, but, if there are no beds at that time they might end up some place else. Thankfully, if you want to move your loved one to another hospital you can do that, but, when it comes to jail…. you are stuck with what you got, so make the best of it, and try and be the best advocate for your loved one.

Understanding Mental Health Jail

Erica Loberg

Erica Loberg was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She attended Columbia University in New York and graduated with a BA in English. She is a published poet and author of Inside the Insane, Screaming at the Void, What Men Should Know About Women, What Women Should Know About Men, Diamonds From The Rough and Undressed.

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APA Reference
Loberg, E. (2018). Understanding Mental Health Jail. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Apr 2018
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