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As  NAMI volunteer I've fielded countless phone calls from from family members whose loved ones have been arrested.  Since most people have little or no experience with county jails and procedures, an arrest can cause confusion and anxiety.  

Although procedures differ slightly from one county to the next, there is general information that can help families cope with the arrest of a loved one whose mental illness often drives his or her behavior.

Here are some questions I am often asked when counseling concerned family members. Following these FAQs is generic guide to dealing with jail procedures and personnel, along with links to various counties which sometimes offer their own guides for managing arrests, and also provide key contact links. 


Arrested - FAQ's

  • My family member is in the city jail and I can't reach him. What do I do?

  • How do I let jail personnel know about my daughter's mental illness?

  • How can I make sure my child has his medications in jail? 

  • What are the steps once they are in jail?

  • How do I get medical information into the right hands at the jail?

  • Will my family member have to face a trial?

  • Will he have an attorney and can I have input with him or her? 

General Guide to Managing Arrest of Family Member with Mental Illness

My Family Member Has Been Arrested - What Do I Do?


•    If your family member/friend calls you and says that he/she has been arrested, help him/her stay calm and offer your help and support.  
•    If your family member/friend is being held in a city jail, remind him/her of the right to have an attorney present if being questioned by police officers or detectives.  
•    If he/she may be subjected to a screening for mental illness, along with other health concerns, tell your family member its important and okay to talk about their mental condition, diagnosis and medications with staff conducting the screening.  


•    Call the local city jail (not the County Jail) that is holding your family member and ask for the Watch Commander.  Inform the Watch Commander that your family member suffers from a mental illness and describe the diagnosis and any other concerns you have.  Inquire as to your relative’s status and estimated length of stay at this facility.  Ask if he/she is expected to be released directly from the city jail. If he/she is going to be released directly from the city jail (this sometimes occurs for minor offenses), ask for the time and place so you can be there to pick them up.  If your relative is severely ill, ask if the city police could take him/her to a psychiatric hospital for a “5150” involuntary three-day hold for treatment and evaluation. 


•    Click on the Inmate Medication Information Form, English Version or Spanish Version on this web page HERE.  Print, complete, and fax as instructed below. 

If this form is not available: Immediately prepare a fax requesting that your relative be screened for placement in the mental health unit.  Begin this fax with your relative’s: 
Full legal name / Date of birth  /  Booking number / Location 
In the body of the fax include: 

o His/her diagnosis 
o    His/her psychiatrist’s name, phone number and address 
o    The medications that are prescribed for your family member by name, dosage and time of day to be administered
o    Whether a particular medication has proven to be ineffective or has dangerous and/or uncomfortable side effects 
o    Any history of suicide attempts/threats or other violent intentions in the recent past.  Briefly describe the events and when they occurred. 
o    Any other urgent medical conditions that might require immediate attention, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, seizures, heart problems, etc., and medications currently prescribed for those conditions.  Include his/her medical doctor’s name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. The medical information you provide is tremendously valuable in making an assessment and will help the mental health staff select the best treatment for your relative.  There is a clear preference for maintaining effective current treatment.  However, the jail staff must conduct its own assessment of your relative’s condition and may not necessarily prescribe exactly the same medications. 
•    IMPORTANT:  Do NOT address any impending charges against your family member in this fax. Medical information only! 
•    Keep a copy of this fax for future reference. If your family member is transferred to a different facility, you will need to fax this information again. 
•    On the cover page, indicate whether your relative has provided you with a written confidentiality waiver.  If your relative has not previously done so, ask that he/she be asked to sign one while in jail.  Staff is generally prohibited by law from giving anyone information about a client’s status unless they have the client’s written consent, but the staff can receive information from relatives or friends without the client’s consent. 
Once your relative has been booked, fax the document to the appropriate numbers at the jail.



•    Your family member may want to retain a private attorney or use the Public Defender’s Office. A public defender will be assigned at arraignment if your relative does not have or cannot afford a private attorney.  Do not be afraid to use a public defender. Public defenders often have knowledge of the system as it pertains to those who need mental health services. 
•    If your family member decides to retain a private attorney, be sure to select one that is well versed in helping people with mental illness and understands how to access the treatment facilities and mental health services that are available. 


Bail:  Think carefully about posting bail for your family member.  No one wants a loved one to remain incarcerated for any length of time. It is an unpleasant experience for them as well as the family.  However, you must ask yourself the following question. Will your family member be able to comply with the terms of the bail and appear in court when required?  Also, as hard as it may seem, jail may be a safer place for a person with severe mental illness who is in crisis rather than having your loved one wander the streets with no help at all.  At least in jail they will be fed, will have shelter and be given access to medication treatments.

Working with an attorney:  Call the Public Defender’s office at the court where the case is being heard and ask for the name and phone number of the attorney who will be handling the case.  It is more likely the attorney will be at his or her desk in the morning between 8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m. before court begins or later in the afternoon after 3:30 p.m.  If you do not reach the attorney, be sure to leave a message requesting a return call with your name, phone number, your family member’s name and, if possible, the case number and court date.  Due to the attorney-client confidentiality requirement, there will be information the attorney may not be able to share with you.  Remember, it is your family member, not you, who is the attorney’s client.

Inform the attorney of your family member’s condition and any information that may be beneficial to the case.  Provide the attorney with an extensive medical, psychiatric, social, and educational history of your family member in writing.  Include hospitalization, diagnosis information, medication treatment, and the contact information of those doctors/clinicians and of facilities that have treated your family member in the past.  This information will be very useful in pursuing the best outcome for your loved one.  Attorneys are extremely busy, and many will appreciate written or faxed correspondence.

Supporting and coping with a loved one who suffers from a brain disorder can be extremely challenging and stressful.  Knowledge, as well as your love and fortitude, will be essential in helping you to become a strong and effective support system for your family member.  For information about support groups and educational programs provided free of charge in your area, contact your local NAMI affiliate from the list HERE. 

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