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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- A vicious cycle takes ill people from the streets, to the hospital, to jail, and back. It robs the mentally ill of their lives and you of your hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
It can be a common sight on the streets of Louisville -- mentally-ill people screaming to themselves, or talking to a fence, or walking with an arm around a person who isn't there. Perhaps it's someone hiding their face from the world, or cowering behind a car or beating himself bloody.
For more than two years, WDRB News photojournalist Neil Johnson captured such images on the streets of Louisville, documenting a problem too big to ignore.
"Jail, in a lot of respects, is the new asylum," says Tony Zipple, the President & CEO of Seven Counties Services.
WDRB's Gilbert Corsey found that Kentuckiana faces a mental health crisis. Enter a local courtroom and you can witness a drama that plays out like this: A judge tells a suspect, "Michelle, we got somebody that's going to help you out." The suspect, Michelle, replies, "I don't have my medicine. They lock me in a room and they won't bring me nothing. Can I have my medicine?"
At Metro Corrections, they're called "frequent fliers" -- the mentally ill hold the most arrests on the most lackluster charges, and most times they cannot fully understand why.
That population makes up 23 percent of the inmates. Asst. Jefferson Co. Attorney Susan Jones explains, "They serve three, four days in jail and are released, no medication, no funds, no treatment, no rehabilitation."
We found Chester Fitzpatrick in that cycle -- talking to a fence one day, talking to a judge soon after. He's logged 79 arrests and 1559 nights in jail, just in Louisville. In court that day, you would have seen him pleading, "Please ma'am can I leave here, I'm very hungry. Can I go home?"
Our investigation discovered it has as much to with what's going in Chester's head as it does with what's going on inside court. As Jefferson District Court Judge David Holton II puts it, "The system has failed these people."
Internal reports obtained by WDRB News show it costs $100-$200 a day to house a mentally ill inmate at Metro Corrections. Think about that -- it's cheaper to stay at a four-star hotel downtown.
The bill for medication alone at the jail runs about $17,500 a month and taxpayers are footing it.
Judge Holton says he's known this for a while -- he is also board chairman for Seven Counties Services, the region's leading mental healthcare provider. He says, "It is much more efficient and economically smart to treat people on the front end than to incarcerate them on the back end." But there are not enough mental health physicians, nor enough housing, jobs, or support services to effectively help this population in Kentuckiana.
One report gave Kentucky an "F" and Indiana a "D" for their quality of mental health care -- spending far less than the rest of the country.
And if nothing changes, there is no end in sight. WDRB photojournalist Neil Johnson approached one man on the street: "Do you mind me asking -- I am asking respectfully. Do you have a mental issue?" The man answered, "I have schizophrenia...I was diagnosed in 1983."
The man was weaving in and out of cars outside our station, walking with his arms over someone who wasn't really there and lashing out to the air. He told us his mother cared for him in Indiana until she became ill and ended up in a nursing home. Now he's fending for himself on $650 a month in disability, telling us, "We're only homeless because no one loves us. All these homeless people, so don't ever judge. We all went to school. We all had families."
Estimates say there are 11 million Americans 18 and older with unmet mental healthcare needs. Laura Teal says it will soon be 11 million and one. Her daughter, Sabrina Kirtley, is a 17-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic with mental retardation and psychosis. "She went to bed and came up a totally different person," Teal says. But she maintains, "I want to believe there's beauty here."
Of her daughter, Teal says, "We may have a good day. It just depends on the voices." And when Kirtley is asked whether the voice are there now, she replies they are. When asked what they are telling her, she says, "I love you."
Teal explains, "The voices will sometimes tell her to hurt herself. She will slap herself and hurt herself, pull her hair -- she throws things."
Teal says her daughter has been committed four times in the past five years. The walls are bare in their Paoli home, the TV sits behind three-inch thick Plexiglas and furniture is minimal -- all for both Kirtley's and her own safety.
Teal says the delusions are so intense, Kirtley can't go to school. Teachers fear her outbursts because the voices have triggered attacks in the past. "We've been trying to get respite in here to care for her while I was to work," Teal says. "We've even looked at temporary placement...We make the contacts, she's on waiting lists and the funds aren't available."
The family borders on bankruptcy. Their fixer-upper home is literally falling down around them. Teal sobs as she says, "I wish she'd go to bed and wake up that little girl again, because it has done a devastation in our lives."
And what makes her most angry? "My husband has done three tours, is a veteran, he has served his country and now that it's time for us to seek out help -- who cares?"
As Judge Holton sums up: "We're all people, and we all deserve dignity."