Spike in mentally ill inmates at Pima County Jail

Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 9:31 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Mentally ill inmates continue to inundate the Pima County Jail.

The sheriff told 13 News Investigates that there’s a significant spike in mental health cases this year.

This is not a new problem. Sheriff Chris Nanos said it’s a constant battle and struggle, a problem Pima County needs to deal with.

He has said for years the jail should not be a de facto mental health facility for southern Arizona.

It’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars and puts the safety of the public and those in jail at higher risk.

Inside the Pima County jail are inmates who are mentally ill, Michael Moynihan Jr. included.

He’s an accomplished musician and convicted felon who is now behind bars, accused of another violent crime, trying to slash the throat of a random stranger earlier this year.

Sheriff Nanos said, “The jail is in crisis, whether people want to admit that or not.”

Nanos points to the numbers.

His jail is bursting at the seams with over 1,900 inmates. On average, 52 percent of the inmates suffer from some sort of mental illness, which is a 10 percent jump over last year.

Forty-eight percent take prescribed medication, which is 8 percent higher than last year.

The list of meds is long.

”A third of them are on psychotropic meds,” Nanos said, “You don’t get on psychotropic meds because we want you to feel good. It’s a mental health problem.”Moynihan is on psychotropic meds, as revealed in court documents. He’s diagnosed with “schizoaffective disorder,” which combines some of the worst aspects of Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Court documents reveal “he hears voices, has grandiose beliefs, and hallucinates” and must be medicated at all times.”

13 News has learned that 8 percent of the jail population is classified as SMI, severely mentally ill.

Nanos said, “I have a staff of 500 young men and women who have to deal with those who are in crisis. It’s tough enough dealing with those who need to be there.

”The county pays the jail’s current health care contractor about $20 million a year to provide all the medical and mental health care at the jail, including substance abuse, which is intricately linked to mental health.” There are some bad people in there,” said Nanos, “They need to be there. But there’s a lot of them. In fact, there’s a lot more of them who could be better serviced elsewhere.”

”Our job is not for them to go to jail. Our goal is to get them help because that’s long-term,” said Sgt. Erin Gibson who leads the Mental Health Support Team.

She told 13 News Investigates, “Jail is a short-term solution. The long-term solution is actually getting them mental health help, getting them on medication, getting them on court-ordered treatment if that’s what it takes.”

Nanos said, “When you sit there as a community and say, we want to put wraparound services at our jail. For those who suffer from mental health and substance abuse, what are you really saying? You have to be arrested to get the services you need.”

The sheriff believes the county needs to ramp up resources for the mentally ill at the front door, not the back door.

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