Video: 50 Percent of Everyone Behind Bars Is Mentally Ill

Dec 04, 2014 at 12:42 PM ET

A number of jails across the country are trying tackle the high number of mentally ill who continue to cycle through the criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 50 percent of the jail and prison population have mental health issues.

“Where the society has failed,” says San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkirami, “is that we should not be using the jail system as the go-to institution to house people suffering with mental illness.” He believes health care might be the answer.

Vocativ, in partnership with MSNBC, recently visited a San Francisco County Jail. Inmates there are being enrolled in health care, which will continue when they reenter the real world. “If you inject a robust public health strategy that gives inmates access to health insurance that attends to those disorders—mental disorders, substance abuse and more—and making sure that they are compelled to get the treatment,” he says, “then we’re convinced that it is less likely that the inmate will return and repeat their offense.”

The jail houses inmates with mental health issues in three so-called psychiatric living units, where they regularly see a therapist. That’s where we met David Johnson, an inmate who has been in and out of the criminal justice system for the last 25 years. He’s a drug addict who also suffers from depression and schizophrenia.