Housing inmates with serious mental illness in the Jackson County Jail is time-consuming for deputies and costly for taxpayers. Without enough services for those who need help in our community, the jail continues to serve a necessary function for the overlapping problems of mental health and public safety.
A 2005 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that 54% of all county jail inmates in the United States had experienced a mental health problem in their lifetime. At any given time, the Jackson County Jail could have more than 100 inmates who have experienced a mental health issue.
In 2015, the Jackson County Jail spent $12,961 on psychotropic medications for inmates with mental health needs. 1194 inmates used these medications during that year (statistics are per lodging event, so one person would have been counted multiple times if they went to jail more than once).
Identifying inmates with mental health problems can be difficult for jail staff. Mental illnesses encompass a wide spectrum of short and long-term conditions with various symptoms and behaviors. Like many people in our community who are living with a mental illness, most inmates are able to manage their mental illness on their own, or with support. Some inmates, however, are unable to control their behaviors. In a jail environment, they may yell, scream, spit, or be physically aggressive. Some even hit their head against the wall or cover themselves in their own blood or feces.
Reasoning with a person suffering a mental health crisis can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. If an inmate is out of control, deputies sometimes must physically restrain the inmate for his or her own safety and for the safety of staff and other inmates. Deputies work to control disruptive and dangerous behaviors while taking care to use the least amount of force necessary.
Inmates who feel suicidal or talk about hurting themselves are placed on “suicide watch”. This means a deputy has to observe the inmate and document that observation at least every 15 minutes. It is not uncommon to have five to ten inmates on suicide watch at any given time. Inmates must remain on suicide watch until cleared by a mental health professional. As part of our medical contract with Correct Care Solutions, we have a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) on staff for 40 hours a week. He counsels inmates when time allows, but much of his time is spent working with inmates on suicide watch.
Many inmates are living with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. Often it is difficult to determine whether an inmate’s behavior is caused by mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination of both. Sometimes the inmate needs to detox before the LCSW can tell whether the inmate requires mental health treatment.
JCSO is partnering with Community Justice, Jackson County Mental Health and the courts to develop new programs and processes to help manage the mentally ill inmate while they are in custody and after their release. The goal is to help the inmate avoid jail by providing appropriate alternatives.
In Jackson County, we are fortunate to have a proactive mental health division. Jackson County Mental Health has received a grant which will provide the jail with a Qualified Mental Health Provider (QMHP). The goal is to advance our current mental health services in the jail and allow for more intensive treatment of those in custody.
Mental Health Court is another resource available to some inmates. In order to participate, the individual must have a referral – generally, but not exclusively – through his or her attorney. A team of professionals evaluates each applicant for acceptance into the court. The team is comprised of representatives from multiple criminal justice and community resource agencies. Each brings a unique perspective and a variety of vital services.
We are in the process of training all of our corrections deputies in crisis intervention. The 40- hour class helps deputies learn more about mental illness and provides them with skills to help deal with those in crisis. So far, about half of our corrections deputies have been able to attend.
I think everyone is aware that there is a mental health crisis in this country. What we experience here is not unique among communities across the country. There are more people who need assistance than there are resources to help them. Along with our community partners, we are doing everything we can to find a way to keep people out of jail when their primary issue is mental illness.
Thank you for your support,
Captain Dan Penland