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Mentally Ill Inmates Crowd Houston Co. Jail | News

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Mentally Ill Inmates Crowd Houston Co. Jail

Houston County detention officers say about a quarter of the people they take in need a hospital, not a jail cell.

They say the jail has become a holding tank for the mentally ill, and they're not equipped to treat them.

It's costing Houston County taxpayers thousands of dollars each day to keep the mentally ill off the streets.

During a recent class for new detention officers, chief detention officer Capt. Beth Shafer told them, "A lot of us don't have experience. We're not physicians."

She shoots straight with these new detention center hires: Dealing with inmates, particularly those with mental illness will be no cake walk. She said inmates will likely display behaviors such as "combativeness and the smearing of feces."

Shafer says observing those sorts of behaviors will be how officers figure out that something is wrong.

Medical privacy laws prevent them from knowing an inmate's condition. What's more Shafer said, "There is no way for us to enforce taking their medication, either here or on the streets."

Jail administrator Major Alan Everidge said, "You have to worry about suicide. You have to worry about outbursts and attacks, damage to property."

Everidge says his records show that roughly 25% inmates take, or should take, medicine for a mental health condition.

More importantly he says, most don't need to be at the jail; They need a hospital.

Everidge said, "We have become the dumping ground for mental health. These people need treatment, and we're trying to give it them, but it costs the taxpayer money, and we're not really designed to handle that."

He says the problem ballooned with the closing of state mental health hospitals, such as Central State in Milledgeville.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national non-profit that seeks to improve mental health laws, the number of bed spaces dedicated to mental health patients in Georgia shrank 27% over five years.

They say the state has roughly 12 beds for every 100,000 people. When arrested in Georgia, the mentally ill are five times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.

The arrests usually follow small offenses, such as trespassing or public nudity, not violent crime.

Everidge said, "Nobody wants to deal with those kind of problems. So, where do they send them? We send 'em to jail. Let's lock 'em up and throw away the key."

That comes at a cost of $60 dollars per day, per inmate until their court date.

Of the roughly 2,400 inmates booked at the Houston County jail since January, if a quarter of them suffered from mental illness and stayed just one day each, that cost taxpayers $36,000.

Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said, "We just do not have the resources."

Stalnaker isn't just talking about the money. He means the tools for treatment, too. Because without those, the inmates leave jail, stop taking their medications and get arrested again, costing taxpayers again.

He said, "So, as far as helping the person, there really hasn't been anything accomplished medically."

Executive Director of the Phoenix Center, a behavioral health and substance abuse treatment center that serves Houston County, Deborah Kinlaw said, "The cycle begins all over again."

Kinlaw wants to break the cycle but says that's tricky. She said, "Until the person agrees to come in for outpatient services, there really isn't anything we can do."

Medical staff who work at the jail can refer them to the Phoenix Center, but are not required to do so. Often, staying on a mental health medication is not part of an offender's bond conditions.

Kinlaw said, "It's important we have accountability factors in place to be able to hold someone accountable for their own recovery and stability."

State Court Judge Jason Ashford recently started an accountability court for misdemeanor offender that could be part of the solution.

It's in the initial phase, started two months ago with a handful of probationers. They report to Ashford once a week about living situation, possible relapses, employment and treatment options.

Some, but not all the offenders, suffer from mental health conditions.

Ashford said, "We require them to attend, or else they're going back to jail."

It's intended to do just the opposite, with a goal of keeping them off illegal drugs, on their mental health medications and living a productive lifestyle.

At the jail, Shafer says to handle the influx of mentally ill inmates her officers need more training than her three-hour lecture on the topic provides.

She suggests Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT. It teaches officers to identify mental health disorders, psychiatric medications and deal with inmates in a psychotic state.

Shafer said, "Once we reach a certain level, were not going to be able to house the true criminals. We will be housing the mentally ill, instead of criminals." That's neither what the jail was designed for, nor what the officers have the skills to treat.

Houston County plans to add a $4 million wing of the jail to separate mentally ill inmates from the general population. Stalnaker said that will not fix the problem, but "alleviate" some issues for detention officers.

The jail pod, as they are called, will be build in the next three years.

Houston County Superior Court Judge Katherine Lumsden has also applied for state funding to start a Mental Health Accountability Court. It would allows offenders to participate in court-supervised treatment.

Lumsden said she hopes to know the dollar amount that they will receive to get the court started by July. She plans to have it up and running by the fall.


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