Prisons have always doubled as mental hospitals. But to their credit, local and state authorities increasingly recognize that treating mental illness behind bars not only helps inmates but curbs recidivism and serves public safety.
City and county officials work hard to keep mentally ill individuals from becoming offenders and inmates through, among other laudable efforts, Comcare services, Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement, the Sedgwick County Offender Assessment Program and a mental health court. Now praise is due Sedgwick County leaders for achieving the long-sought goal of a mental health pod in the county jail, at a cost of $735,000 a year to operate.
Plans call for opening one section with 14 inmates on Feb. 17, with sections to be added until the pod has a total 48 mental health inmates.
And when it’s at capacity, officials say, there will be a waiting list – further evidence of the significant need for a place in the jail where mentally ill inmates can be stabilized and receive specialized treatment and monitoring. One estimate put the number of jail inmates who’d had previous treatment for mental illness at 40 percent.
The pod, which can accommodate both men and women in separate living areas, will be overseen by two specially trained deputies. Sheriff Jeff Easter told county commissioners last May that having such a unit could limit the risk of lawsuits – another plus, given the ongoing federal lawsuit claiming mentally ill inmates were mistreated at the jail.
As for the state’s prison system: “We’re the largest mental health provider in Kansas,” as Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts has said.
He recently told a Senate panel that 38 percent of inmates have mental illnesses, a 126 percent increase since 2006, and that “in order to just stay functional, there has to be some expansion of mental health management.”
He predicted to a House committee that the 60 percent cuts to offender programs and 46 percent cuts in re-entry services during the past five years will show up in prisoner recidivism. “Mental health issues and substance abuse issues are absolutely driving the train,” he said, noting that of the 860 offenders released in 2013 who needed cognitive pro-social skills services, only about 23 percent received them.
Gov. Sam Brownback, who last year vetoed the entire Kansas Department of Corrections 2015 budget for being “inadequate,” wisely included increased funding in his $360 million follow-up budget proposal to allow KDOC to add clinicians and offer mental health services to more inmates. The versions of the governor’s proposed corrections budget approved by committees in both chambers preserve those increased dollars, and lawmakers have spoken of the need to better fund programs that stand to reduce recidivism and save money long term.
With state and local budgets tight and getting tighter, the challenge will be to back up that stated support with sufficient and consistent funding. It will be better yet if more such individuals can connect with the mental health and other services that can keep them out of jail.