The national issue of criminalizing our mentally ill

Law enforcement is often left to contend with mentally ill people, say experts.

January 15, 2024, 6:05 AM

Biya Belayneh was already clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, hypermania and bipolar disorder when he was wrongfully accused of assaulting a cellmate in jail. The allegation put him in solitary confinement in Maryland's Montgomery County Correctional Facility for a year.

By the time he was cleared of all charges for assaulting his cellmate and released from solitary confinement in 2019, his mental health had deteriorated considerably, according to Tizita Belachew, Belayneh's mother.

"He was worse than when he got in," Belachew told ABC News. "More isolated."

The mental health care system in the United States is dysfunctional, according to law enforcement and mental health care advocates. One result of that is people suffering from mental illnesses are often being incarcerated and deteriorating behind bars, says Sheriff Tony Thompson of Iowa's Black Hawk County Sheriff's Office.

"We're the greatest country in the world, but we leave people behind and then we pretend like they don't exist," Thompson told ABC News. "And we cannot simply arrest our way out of this problem."

Thompson, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who authored the book "Anyplace but Here: The Uncomfortable Convergence Between Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System," said approximately 60% of inmates in the Black Hawk County jail have a history of mental health disorders.

PHOTO: Black Hawk County, Iowa sheriff Tony Thompson said 60% of his jail is occupied by people with a history of mental health disorders.
Black Hawk County, Iowa sheriff Tony Thompson said 60% of his jail is occupied by people with a history of mental health disorders.
Courtesy of Tony Thompson

"In America today, the fastest-growing population in prison is not Blacks, Hispanics, or toothless methamphetamine addicts," Thompson writes in his book. "It is the mentally ill. We are criminalizing our brothers and our sisters, our neighbors and our friends at an alarming and increasing pace."

About 43% of state and 23% of federal prisoners in the country had a history of mental health problems, according to a 2016 survey of prison inmates reported by the U.S. Department of Justice. But general admission numbers in local jails are 20% higher than in state or federal prisons, says Chan Noether, director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's GAINS Center, an organization that provides services for people with mental disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Noether told ABC News that local jails incarcerate offenders for petty crimes that mental health patients tend to commit, like loitering or disturbing the peace.

"Believe it or not, sometimes we say it's better for him [Belayneh] to be in jail than on the street," said Belachew, who raised two sons in Maryland with her now ex-husband after immigrating from Ethiopia. "He will come and he will say, 'Mom, somebody [in the streets] put a gun to my head.'"

Thompson said when family members of mentally ill patients call the police to help them with a relative experiencing a mental health episode, police often end up taking the patient into custody.

"I stand in front of a parent who's calling 911 for their child and I know the pain that they feel," Thompson told ABC News. "And I know how frustrating it is to go to the legislature and say, 'This is a problem, please help us fix this problem,' only to watch them worry more about gun and gun rights and books in school with naughty words."

Noether said there has been more national legislation passed in the last 10 years to reform mental health policies pertaining to the criminal justice system, but there is still a great deal of work to do. He pointed to the nature of the nation's criminal justice system as an example.

"It's focused more on the punitive nature of the process of incarceration than on the rehabilitative nature," Noether said. "In many communities, there aren't alternatives … we don't know what to do with him or her or them."

PHOTO: Biya Belayneh, left, was an all-county point guard, quarterback of his high school football team, and honor roll student before succumbing to mental health illnesses.
Biya Belayneh, left, was an all-county point guard, quarterback of his high school football team, and honor roll student before succumbing to mental health illnesses.
Courtesy of Tizita Belachew

Earlier in his life, when Biya Belayneh moved away to college on an academic scholarship, he began to exhibit signs for depression. His mother, Tizita Belachew, says he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and never finished his degree. Instead, she says his life spiraled downward for the next ten-plus years. He abused alcohol and drugs, experienced homelessness, and was arrested and jailed for misdemeanor crimes, all while his mental health deteriorated.

Belachew said she tried to keep Belayneh in mental health facilities during that time. However, although he was clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, hypermania and bipolar disorder by a Maryland doctor for inmate health, it was difficult for Belachew to make him stay in treatment facilities because he was over 18 years old. Belayneh would often check himself out and seldom took his prescribed medicine on his own, according to Belachew.

"It's the state doctor who determines who is mentally ill," Belachew said. "But at the same time, it's the state who prosecutes people who cannot have the right judgment."

In Thompson's state of Iowa, policymakers began to decrease mental health care funding a decade ago because they wanted to end arcane practices that institutionalized patients in warehouse-like facilities, according to Thompson. But the state legislature never supplemented the lost funding to address the current needs of mental health care, Thompson said.

"I don't think there's anyone in this nation that doesn't have someone that they know that is mentally ill," Thompson said. "Whether it's anxiety, depression, PTSD, whatever. We can all relate. We can all understand."

PHOTO: Biya Belayneh, left, struggled with mental health issues and the law for 14 years, according to Tizita Belachew, right, his mother.
Biya Belayneh, left, struggled with mental health issues and the law for 14 years, according to Tizita Belachew, right, his mother.
Courtesy of Tizita Belachew

Biya Belayneh died in May of 2021 at the age of 35 after suffering for 14 years with mental illness. Someone in the Washington, D.C. apartment where he died called emergency responders, said Belachew, but she doesn't know who made the call.

Belachew also doesn't know how her son died. The autopsy stated the manner of death as inconclusive, she said.

In her son's memory, Belachew founded the Biya Belayneh Foundation for Mental Health. It's a non-profit with the mission to raise awareness about mental health disorders in Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora communities – where, like many immigrant communities, stigmatization of mental illness is the norm, according to Belachew.

"I speak to him. He's with me, and I love him. I just cannot touch him." Belachew said of her son, tears streaming down her face. "I will always miss him."

ABC News' Tesfaye Negussie contributed to this report.

Related Topics

news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news