Report says jail needs changes for the mentally ill The recommendations followed a killing. Also, a plan to ease crowding was offered.

Posted: September 30, 2004

The beating death of a mentally ill inmate calls for changes in oversight, training, record-keeping and staffing at the overcrowded Camden County jail, a wide-ranging report commissioned after the January slaying of Joel Seidel concluded.

Released yesterday and written by William Waldman, a former state commissioner of human services, the study said problems at the jail reflected a nationwide situation: The percentage of inmates who are mentally ill is much higher than the proportion of the general population that is mentally ill.

The report recommended more oversight, including the creation of an ombudsman to represent the mentally ill.

Even as the report was being released, county and court officials announced measures targeting overcrowding in the jail by diverting low-level offenders away from incarceration.

The Camden County Correctional Facility is supposed to hold 1,269 inmates, but yesterday the population was 1,882. About 16 percent are severely mentally ill, compared with 8 percent of the general population, Waldman said.

Jailed for violating a restraining order, Seidel was being held in the overburdened mental-health unit while awaiting a competency hearing when, officials have said, he was beaten to death by Marvin Lister, a criminally insane inmate with a history of violence.

Under the measures announced by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, people charged with low -evel offenses will avoid jail through electronic bracelets and intensive community work.

Instead of issuing bench warrants and sending minor offenders to jail, judges will suspend their driver's licenses or use something known as "OR bail" - releasing them on their own recognizance.

"It should have a fairly substantial impact on the jail program," said John Mariano, a retired judge and chairman of the coordinating committee, which was convened in May to help oversee the jail.

In January, 423 of the jail's 1,751 inmates were incarcerated for traffic violations, Mariano said. Many of those, he said, did not need to be in jail.

The electronic-bracelet program will start with 50 bracelets and cost $375,000, using money already in the budget. This cost, Mariano said, will be offset by having participants pay a yet-to-be-determined fee and by having one fewer person in jail for each bracelet used.

Though the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee's work would affect low-level offenders, including traffic violators, reducing the general jail population also would send ripples through the mental-health community.

Waldman said changes could make a difference in cases similar to Seidel's, in which "the jail was used inappropriately as a primary mental-health modality."

Overcrowding certainly contributed to the 65-year-old Cherry Hill man's death, Waldman concluded. The jail's mental-health wing contains 18 cells that open onto a common area, and on the day Seidel was murdered, inmates were double- and triple-bunked, a housing option Waldman said he considered "the worst."

"This is a very risky proposition," he said. "It raises the stakes and the possibility of a tragedy."

The report recommended that a backup plan be drawn up to have mentally ill inmates moved to another facility if the mental-health unit is overcrowded.

Waldman and Mariano also raised a red flag about competency determinations for mentally ill inmates. Currently, only the state can determine whether an inmate is fit to stand trial, and the wait for examinations can stretch for months.

Seidel, who could have been released on payment of $150 bail, had been in a jail for a month for violating a restraining order, and had just been ordered to undergo a competency examination when he was killed.

Waldman's report lists nine recommendations for the jail, including expanding the leadership body and beefing up training at all levels in addition to creating an ombudsman.

Other suggestions include reviewing the mental-health staffing and security requirements of the jail and revamping the "somewhat antiquated technology" used to oversee mentally ill patients' medications.

Out of tragedy, the report concluded, comes a chance for broad, meaningful change.

"This is not just a Camden problem; this is a state and a national problem," Waldman said, adding that if reform was carefully sought after Seidel's death, "Camden would show the way nationally."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 856-779-3927 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

Recommendations for the County Jail

Create and empower a broadly representative leadership body. The body would be an expansion of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, including representatives from the judicial, legal, criminal justice, and mental-health communities and relatives of inmates and former inmates, and others.

Broaden training for all those professionally engaged in the Camden County criminal-justice system.

Create the position of ombudsman/resource specialist for the mentally ill in the criminal-justice system.

Examine New Jersey's statutorily prescribed methods of competency evaluations and involuntary commitments to determine whether Camden County's processes can be expedited or improved.

Work with Steininger Behavorial Care Services, the agency under contract to provide mental-health services at the jail, to improve those services.

Review the Camden County Mental Health Plan and work with agencies to identify funding for new and expanded programs, especially those that might prevent incarceration.

Review and revise the staffing requirements of the jail's mental-health unit and the classification and internal security for mentally ill inmates.

Review the practices and protocols for patient records and the administration of psychotropic medication to inmates.

Consider establishing "backup" options to accommodate mentally ill inmates when the mental-health unit is severely overcrowded.

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