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Florida Jails Lack Critical Mental Health Services, UCF Ph.D. Candidate Finds

Florida jails lack critical mental health services and treatments for inmates, ultimately posing a risk to the community and the inmate upon release, according to research by a University of Central Florida doctoral student.

The problem was identified by Orville Clayton, who graduates this week with a Ph.D. in public affairs in the health services management and research track. As part of his dissertation, he studied the state of mental health services in jails across the state and ways to diagnose and address the conditions of inmates.

“Individuals with mental health illnesses who are not adequately treated pose … harm to the community to which many will return if they are not stabilized during the period of incarceration,” Clayton said.

The goal of his research is to help the correctional system identify ways to address mental illnesses in inmates. Moving forward, he suggests training jail security on mental health issues, creating a continuity of care system that involves community partners and inmates’ families to obtain relevant information, developing a systematic manner to assess the quality of mental health services offered in jails, and implementing an approach to treatment that considers genetic, psychological and social factors that may influence one’s mental health.

His interest in mental health services in jails stems from a 25-year career as a health-care provider and administrator in the correctional system. He currently works as the mental health director at the Seminole County jail, which has taken steps over the years to expand its mental health services.

The Seminole County jail offers screenings, assessments, medication administration and management, specialized housing, individualized and group counseling and psychoeducation, case management and limited discharge planning, he said.

“At a time when many jails provided limited and certainly isolated mental health services, [former] Sheriff Don Eslinger [of Seminole County] initiated many partnerships with community providers … to develop sustainable mental health services within a continuum of care that included the jail,” Clayton said.

Over Clayton’s professional career and throughout his research, he’s come to understand the importance of addressing mental illnesses in inmates, but he’s also come to understand that a lack of resources often prevents more mental health services from being available.

“Mental health care is not cheap, especially when it concerns dealing with hospitalization,” said Robert Hugh Potter, a UCF professor in criminal justice. “We don’t have many certified mental health diagnostics in jails except in very large jail systems.”

Many jails, including in Seminole County, are considered medium-sized jails with the capacity for 250-999 inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, meaning they do not benefit from the same resources as large jail systems.

“This research demonstrated for me the importance of shared knowledge as a prerequisite to identify service gaps and implement practical and sustainable solutions,” said Clayton, who will continue his work at the Seminole County jail after graduation.