Reformers seek alternatives to putting mentally ill behind bars in Alaska

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By Liz Raines Photojournalist: Cale Green – 8:54 PM April 5, 2017

JUNEAU –

There’s a will, but no clear way to solve a problem the Deptartment of Corrections (DOC) calls ‘unacceptable.’ Every year, Alaska prisons see thousands of cases of intoxicated, often mentally ill people who spend the night in prison cells instead of hospitals beds.

Greg Fitch is one of them.

“I have schizoaffective disorder. I have a personality disorder, very common in mental illness. I’m an ex-alcoholic and I do fall behind the wagon sometimes,” Fitch said during an interview outside of Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center Wednesday.

Fitch says he fell off the wagon Saturday, when he got drunk and became suicidal. He went to the hospital for help, but ended up in a jail cell instead.

“The people that brought me here, I knew one of them personally and I could tell he didn’t want to do it. Actually, I think he was confused too,” said Fitch.

Title 47 of Alaska law says intoxicated people can be held in prison for up to twelve hours if a hospital or family member won’t take them. While well-intentioned, Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams says the law needs reform.

(Data from Title 47 provided by the Alaska Dept. of Corrections)

“You’re not making them any better by putting them in a jail cell when they have serious psychiatric conditions,” Williams said.

He says the law was meant to provide a safe place to sober up for intoxicated people who may pose a threat to themselves or others. But in some cases, it’s kept them from getting the medical attention they need.

In 2015, Joseph Murphy died at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center while in a holding cell, under Title 47. After taking office last year, Williams has been advocating for sobering centers equipped with medical staff as alternatives to prison beds.

“I look at this as whether or not if it was my brother, my sister, a loved one, my daughter or son. Would it be acceptable to me where they were at? And in many of those cases, the answer is it’s not acceptable to me. I don’t think it’s acceptable to anyone else right now either. It’s just that what is the alternative,” said Williams.

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a solution.

“Funding’s always going to be a problem. Even when we had a lot of money, this was hard to figure out,” Sen. John Coghill, Chair of the Judiciary Committee said. “How to get the people to do the service. What would that service look like?”

It’s a problem those in the mental health community, the state and local authorities all agree needs solving — but no one has an easy solution.

Fitch runs an organization that advocates on behalf of those with mental illness, Mental Health Consumer Action Network (MCAN). By sharing his own experience, he hopes to shine a light on the issue.

“We’re using the criminal justice system as a band-aid for mental health,” said Fitch. “It happens every day. We know that, there’s no doubt about that.”

A coalition in Fairbanks is taking the first steps toward opening a sobering center. The community has more than a thousand title 47 cases a year, according to DOC.

Williams says he’d like to put DOC money toward opening more sobering centers around the state.