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Mentally ill prisoners a costly quandary for Sedgwick County Jail

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012, at 10:19 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 13, 2014, at 2:09 p.m.

The 49 inmates the Sedgwick County Jail would place in a mental health pod — if it had one — have been arrested 375 times since 2005.

Two have been arrested more than 20 times each during that period.

As the county prepares to elect a new sheriff, inmates with mental illnesses continue to rotate in and out of jail and to stay longer than those who don’t struggle with illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

Sheriff Robert Hinshaw, who lost his re-election bid in August, has pushed for the past few years to build a dedicated pod to serve inmates with mental illnesses. The total cost of the first year of operation of such a pod was pegged at $750,000 in 2009. The county thus far has not funded the pod.

Wichita police Capt. Jeff Easter, the Republican nominee for sheriff, said he also would seek a mental health pod. Democrat Jefrey Weinman, a retired Wichita police officer running for sheriff, declined to say whether he wanted such a pod, instead saying that “God has a plan for the jail and the county.”

Jails and prisons across the country are trying to find ways to better deal with inmates who have mental illnesses. At the Sedgwick County Jail, an average 275 inmates, or nearly 19 percent, are on some medication for mental health each month. The average daily population at the jail is 1,463.

The average length of stay for an inmate is 28 days. The average length of stay for the 49 inmates who Hinshaw would house in a special pod is 165 days. The longer stays come at a great cost to taxpayers. The county spends $67.78 a day to house someone in jail.

“It’s frustrating,” Hinshaw said of his efforts to build a mental health pod. “I think it’s something that we do need in the Sedgwick County Jail. Right or wrong, regardless of how you feel about it, we see more people with mental illnesses being incarcerated, and we need to have the tools to provide the proper level of care.”

Shawnee and Johnson counties have special pods for inmates with mental illnesses.

“In the end, the more effectively we work with our mental health population while they’re in custody and keep them on their medications, the less likely they are to come back. Although we invest some money up front, in the long run it’s much more cost-effective,” said Johnson County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Tom Erickson.

Johnson County

Jails have become a mental health institution to some degree. The state’s mental health hospitals have waiting lists, and Sedgwick County doesn’t have long-term facilities for people with mental illnesses.

Of the 49 inmates the Sheriff’s Office would house in a mental health pod, 43 are in custody on felony charges and six are in custody on misdemeanors. Prosecutors have charged seven with murder or attempted murder.

Those are just the inmates who would go to the special pod if it were available. The jail deals with about 225 more inmates with mental illnesses.

Erickson said people with mental illnesses often commit “fairly petty crimes.”

“They do something to draw the attention of the police,” he said. “They get into a fight or cause a disturbance. Up until very recently, it has been, ‘they committed a crime, they go back to jail.’ ”

Johnson County started a mental health co-responder program in Olathe in which mental health professionals accompany police on calls.

“Maybe we don’t arrest them,” Erickson said. “Maybe there’s some other solution.”

The key, Erickson said, is to keep people on their medications. An inmate struggling with mental illness might get back on medications in jail but not have the resources to stay on medications when released. Johnson County works with inmates to get them the help they need after release to stay out of jail.

Johnson County’s jail has an average daily population of about 650 to 700. About 17 percent of its inmate population is considered mentally ill. The average length of stay at the jail for all inmates is 17 days.

“It’s considerably longer for mentally ill inmates,” Erickson said.

The jail has two special units for people with mental illnesses — one for women and one for men. The Sheriff’s Office there also started a “forensic assertive community team” that “tries to reintegrate people back into society when they’re leaving jail,” Erickson said.

Case workers, psychologists and psychiatrists work in the jail. The former two are there every day, Erickson said.

The Sedgwick County Jail’s provider of medical services, Conmed, staffs five mental health professionals under the current contract, said sheriff’s Capt. Sharon Willits, commander of the support bureau.

Inmates with mental illnesses receive medications but there is “nothing resembling a therapeutic community that you’d see at a mental health facility or what you would find in a dedicated mental health pod,” Hinshaw said.

The focus now is primarily on stabilizing inmates with mental illnesses. Inmates may receive additional attention from mental health professionals based on their individual needs, Hinshaw said. Inmates who are considered suicidal are put under observation.

Shawnee County

In Shawnee County, the Department of Corrections operates the jail. There are three pods for people designated with mental health problems, said Richard Kline, director of the department.

One is for inmates who are on suicide watch, another for inmates “you can’t put in a general population” because of their mental illnesses, Kline said.

A medical pod is available for inmates who may have a combination of mental health and medical problems.

“It’s a constant balancing act,” Kline said of working with mentally ill inmates. “We’re the largest inpatient mental health facility in Shawnee County. We just are.”

Shawnee County, which includes Topeka, began using special pods in 2002, Kline said. Its jail’s average daily population has hovered around 475 inmates this year. About 20 percent of inmates have serious and persistent mental illnesses.

“It’s been an evolution process for us,” Kline said. “As we have started to see more mentally ill come into our jail, we’ve found the need to reclassify and repurpose our modules to better address that population.”

It’s tricky, though, because many such inmates have other problems, Kline said. For example, they might be schizophrenic but also addicted to methamphetamine.

“The inmate is supposed to be on psychotropic medications. But he’s on meth. And he comes into the jail. When he’s first getting booked into the facility, you don’t know ... does he have a mental health problem or is he using illegal drugs? Maybe they’ve been strung out on meth for a week.”

If an inmate is on illegal drugs, “we don’t automatically put them on psychotropic drugs. We let the illegal drugs get out of their system first.”

Kline agreed with Hinshaw that “there just aren’t enough community-based resources for the mentally ill.”

While such an inmate is in jail, “they’re safe, they’re secure,” Kline said. “But a jail is not a mental health treatment facility, which is what you need. The best solution would be that they don’t each touch the door of the jail, but the reality is they do.”

And it’s getting worse, Kline said.

“The economy is tough all over, so community resource dollars are tightening up,” Kline said. “Access to the state hospitals is becoming more and more difficult. So even if someone wants to voluntarily commit themselves to Osawatomie or Larned, they’ve got a waiting line. If they don’t have adequate support systems, well then, something happens and they end up in jail. The lack of state mental health facilities is a ripple effect. It ripples back to the community and then within the community, they end up in the jail.”

Need for a pod

Easter said he has talked to Hinshaw about the need for a mental health pod.

“I think he has the right idea on that,” Easter said. “We need to work hard at trying to get that accomplished. It’s important because we have a growing number of folks who have mental (illnesses) who are being placed in jail instead of where they can get help.”

Easter said police regularly run into people with mental illnesses.

“We are dealing with them on a constant basis because they’re not taking their medications. These are the people we need to get additional help for.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com

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