Reporters with Al-Jazeera were in Houston earlier this month filming around the city and in the Harris County Jail -- getting some peopleriled up
-- to "examine the criminalization of the mentally ill." The 22-minute news story was released last week, and while it was well-made and informative, the story doesn't offer much new information to anyone that follows the criminal justice system in Texas. Basically, the Harris County Jail is a bad place, especially if you're mentally ill.
But the Al-Jazeera reporters also hit on something ironic about Houston, something the Houston Press wrote about in "How to Save a Life," a cover story from December of last year. The city is home to a jail that is one of the worst places for the mentally ill in the nation, but the police department has the largest and one of the most progressive programs in the country that deals with that same population.
"We are much more professional in our response, in that we realize jail is not the answer," Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt told Al-Jazeera.
The story briefly profiles the police department's CIRT program, which partners a patrol officer who's part of the Crisis Intervention Team and a mental health professional from the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
Even though the CIRT program is one of the few bright spots in dealing with law enforcement and the mentally ill in the Houston area, the Harris County Sheriff's Office still hasn't implemented a similar program.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I wouldn't say there is resistance, but there just hasn't been any movement," Lieutenant Mike Lee, who heads HPD's mental-health unit, tells Hair Balls. "Every time I see the sheriff or one of his representatives they say, 'We're all for it.' I don't know why it's dragging."
The sheriff's office has, however, started emphasizing crisis intervention training for its deputies, "something that has been overlooked for years," according to Lee.
The remainder of the Al-Jazeera story is mainly about the problems caused by keeping such a large population of mentally ill inmates in the county jail and the state prison system.
"A lot of people were leery [about Al-Jazeera doing a story] because they thought they wanted to make America look bad," Lee says. "But if you take a look at the problem, there really isn't a way to make it look good."