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Eagle editorial: Jail needs mental health pod

  • Published Monday, Sep. 24, 2012, at 5:36 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 24, 2012, at 5:37 p.m.

Sedgwick County has let the cost of a mental health pod deter it from opening one at the Sedgwick County Jail. But the price of not having one has to be getting up there, too, both in human terms and the $67.78 a day it costs to house each inmate.

Already in place in Shawnee and Johnson counties’ jails, such pods have become common nationwide as the numbers of psychiatric in-patient beds have dwindled and more people with mental illnesses have landed in jail. The units make it easier to diagnose, treat and manage such inmates, as well as to keep them safe and help them prepare for a stable life after jail. They are safer for staff as well.

Sedgwick County has done a good job of helping mentally ill individuals “upstream” from the jail through multiple programs, including Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement, the Sedgwick County Offender Assessment Program and, with the city of Wichita, a mental health court. Another initiative in the study stage would provide a “one-stop shop” where individuals in crisis could go to be assessed, in case there is a better place for them than the emergency room or jail.

But alternative programs can only go so far. As reported in the Monday Eagle, there are 49 inmates who’ve been arrested a total 375 times since 2005 who’d be suitable for a mental health pod, including two who’ve been arrested more than 20 times each. It makes sense that the special attention they’d get for their illness in a mental health pod would curb recidivism.

The issues involved in some lawsuits also point to situations that might have been helped by such a pod. One federal civil rights lawsuit contends that mentally ill inmates have been subjected to beatings, abuse, neglect and humiliation. Through August, the jail also had seen attempted suicides by 54 jail inmates since January 2011.

Spending $750,000 a year on a mental health pod has been a priority for Sheriff Robert Hinshaw. Indeed, the county could have had such a pod already, if not for a former commission majority’s objection to funding it with federal grant money. And “I don’t want to see the jail become an insane asylum,” one then-commissioner declared in 2010.

Whoever wins the Nov. 6 election and replaces Hinshaw in January, Republican Jeff Easter or Democrat Jefrey Weinman, needs to be aggressive in pushing county leaders to get such a pod funded and open. Easter already is a proponent.

And the current commission may have the will, if not the money. During a briefing regarding the jail population earlier this month, three of five county commissioners and County Manager William Buchanan expressed interest in advancing the idea of a mental health pod, including by having the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council get to work on it.

It’s time.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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