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Letter: Mentally ill don't belong in jail

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one of the four pods at the new Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. (March 22, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In a recent letter, a mental health professional from a nonprofit agency working inside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility wrote that he finds it disturbing to have witnessed mentally unstable inmates restrained with shackles and face masks ["Better oversight of mentally ill inmates," Jan. 21].

I have long stated that individuals with mental illnesses are significantly overrepresented in correctional settings, and these offenders simply can't be treated for their mental illnesses in jail. Poor policy decisions and state budget cuts for psychiatric services have shifted the burden of housing mentally ill people on to local jails.

It is often necessary for mentally ill inmates to be segregated because the stress of confinement can exacerbate their conditions. They can become aggressive and pose serious danger to our officers, other inmates and themselves. While our correction officers have empathy for mentally ill inmates, they often have no choice but to use appropriate restraints, including facial "spit" masks designed to protect them from illness transmitted through saliva.

As in the past, I will continue to raise awareness of these issues with county and state officials, who must ultimately take responsibility for developing appropriate supervision and alternatives to incarceration for those who tend to commit nuisance crimes because of their severe mental illness.

Vincent F. DeMarco, Riverhead

Editor's note: The writer is the Suffolk County sheriff.