There is no longer enough room in Los Angeles County Jail to house inmates diagnosed with a mental illness in a segregated area, so those inmates are being housed with the general population.

Join us for an L.A. Now Live chat at 9 a.m. as we talk with Times columnist Steve Lopez about what he witnessed when he toured the jails.

Sheriff Lee Baca has said for decades that he runs the nation's largest mental hospital, but we've heard it so often that the shock has worn off. We know there's something inexcusably wrong with the system — something backward and inhumane. But we shrug and move on, and the failure of public policy persists, at great public expense, while Los Angeles County officials order up another round of studies.

Steve Lopez on jails, mental illness

On the seventh floor of the Twin Towers, some of the most severely ill men stood in the locked single cells of a dorm-style bloc Monday, staring into space, banging on walls or howling. On the fifth floor, cells were filled to capacity and bunks were squeezed into the common dining area to handle the overflow. Some of the bunks are two beds high, some three. Privacy and quiet do not exist for inmates or their jailhouse therapists.

If you're trying to figure out what makes for a desirable therapeutic environment, said Sara Hough, who runs the jail clinical program for the county Mental Health Department and takes pride in trying to deliver desperately needed care, "this ain't it."

Clearly, locking these men up over and over again isn't working, and it isn't cheap. But it's what the system has been doing for years in Los Angeles County and in jails and prisons across the country.

Therapists know it. Judges know it, because they see the same offenders churn through their courtrooms, many of them for drug possession and minor offenses in which the underlying cause is often a mental illness. And jailers surely know it, though the problem is not of their making or of any other single agency's.