Sedgwick County's jail needs to better serve the mentally ill, who stay longer than other inmates and are of greater risk to themselves and others, Sheriff Robert Hinshaw says. Hinshaw has asked — again — for commissioners to support a mental health "pod" at the jail. It would house up to 49 inmates with severe and persistent mental illness and focus more on treatment.
Mentally ill offenders stay longer in jail than other inmates, increasing the cost to operate a facility already squeezed by overcrowding.
The 49 inmates Hinshaw said he would recommend for such a pod this year have been arrested a total of 324 times since 2005. Law enforcement arrested one of the inmates 20 times; the average number of arrests was 7.
Of the 49, 42 faced felony charges, and seven were accused of misdemeanor offenses. Authorities had charged four with murder or attempted murder.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year accused the county and Sheriff's Office of negligence in the 2008 beating of a mentally ill inmate, Edgar Richard Jr.
While being held on a probation violation and awaiting a mental evaluation, Richard suffered a beating by a jail deputy in February 2008 that fractured his jaw and left him in intensive care for weeks. Former detention deputy Manuel Diaz pleaded no contest last year to aggravated battery in the case. Richard later died of stomach cancer.
The county has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, filed by a family member of Richard's, but Hinshaw said this week that a mental health pod "would have greatly reduced the chances of something like that happening. The primary motivation for me is the safety of my staff, safety of the inmates and the safety of the public."
Not all commissioners appear sold on the idea, though. Board members Kelly Parks, Karl Peterjohn and Gwen Welshimer last year were not in favor of a supplemental request for funding by the Sheriff's Office.
Hinshaw estimated in his budget request that the first full year of operation of such a pod would cost just more than $718,000.
Welshimer said Friday that she still has too may questions to be able to vote yes yet.
"I think it needs a lot more discussion,'' she said. "I'm not ready to say it's the right thing to do. That's the better part of a million dollars."
Commissioner Dave Unruh said this week that he absolutely supports a mental health pod.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "It's best practice."
Emergencies, not treatment
The average length of stay in jail for the 49 inmates Hinshaw and his staff would have assigned to a mental health pod last year was just more than 286 days. The average length of stay for all inmates last year was 17.4 days, excluding inmates in booking.
The average length of stay for the 49 inmates Hinshaw would recommend for such a pod this year has dropped to 172 days but is still far greater than the average for most inmates.
"People with mental illness tend to stay in here longer," Hinshaw said. "The longer they're in here, the more problematic that can become."
Part of the problem with the way the jail deals with inmates with mental illnesses, Hinshaw said, is that "we deliver emergency care, not treatment."
Staff in such a pod would be specially trained, and inmates would be offered counseling and treatment. The jail would reconfigure space to make room for the pod. The majority of cost would be for staff to supervise the unit.
Other Kansas counties, including Shawnee and Johnson, as well as Jackson County in Missouri and Pima County in Arizona, have mental health pods, Hinshaw said.
"It's been very successful elsewhere," he said.
A study by the National Sheriff's Association in May found that there are three times more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals, Hinshaw said.
He also noted that there are no long-term mental health facilities in Sedgwick County.
'Critical facet' of care
Gerry Litchti, president of the Wichita chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said his group is pushing commissioners to support funding for a mental health pod.
"It's definitely needed," he said. "When persons go into the jail and they're extremely symptomatic, being in a regular holding pod as they're processed is just extremely difficult. The risk factor is there for danger for themselves and other persons."
He said other jurisdictions have shown that special pods help ''get people assessed more quickly and stabilized more quickly in an environment that's conducive to that."
"We know that there's costs involved, but we feel it's a really critical facet for mental health services in the community."