To the Editor: The Taking Issue by Geller in the December 2001 issue (1) is extremely insensitive. As someone who works with a jail diversion program, I can tell you that the incarceration of people with mental illness is a major problem and should not be trivialized. Currently 300,000 mentally ill persons reside in jails and prisons in the United States—five times as many as in state hospitals.
Some prisoners are in solitary confinement for weeks, covered in urine and feces. They have been arrested for assault, destruction of property, indecent exposure, and unlawful entry. Many of these people have been arrested multiple times, and many are homeless when they are not in jail. Few mental health professionals or programs want to work with them.
This is not a matter to be jokingly compared with diverting people from donut shops. It is a failure of mental health systems across the country. In some jurisdictions, 20 percent of 911 calls involve mentally ill persons. Several have been killed by police. Talk to any law enforcement officer, and you will get an earful about the incompetence of mental health authorities. For those who do not choose to recognize the problem, please stay out of the way of those of us who do.
Dr. Keisling is affiliated with Upper Cardozo Health Center in Washington, D.C.