Mental health pod coming to Sedgwick County Jail

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If all goes as planned, the Sedgwick County Jail will open a unit designed to deal with mentally ill inmates on Feb. 17, a sheriff’s official says.

The mental health management unit – commonly referred to as the mental health pod – will house up to 48 inmates, said Sedgwick County sheriff’s Capt. Sharon Willits. The unit will be designed to focus on the needs of the mentally ill, a large contingent of the jail population on any given day. Even with a capacity for 48, “there will be a waiting list to get into it,” Willits said.

As inmates become stabilized in the pod and are doing well enough, they can be moved into the general population, making room for others to go into the unit, she said. Some mentally ill inmates will never be able to go into the general population, especially those who refuse to take their medication. Others – those who are mildly mentally ill – will never have to go to the special unit, she said.

One difference between the mental health pod and other sections of the jail is that it will be manned by two deputies rather than one, allowing the second deputy to move from cell to cell and throughout the pod to help closely monitor the inmates and their interaction with staff members. The other deputy will remain in a booth used to oversee the pod.

The unit will be set up to house men and women, in separate living areas.

The deputies who will work in the unit will be trained in how to deal with the mentally ill, Willits said. Part of the consideration in selecting the right deputies for the job is finding people who have a calming influence, because they are dealing with inmates who are in the midst of mental health crises, she said. Among the job requirements are patience and the desire to work in such an environment.

Most of the inmates in the mental health pod will be in single-person cells, but there will be one cell each in the male and female sections that will have two beds, because some mentally ill inmates do better when they are with others, Willits said.

Inmates in the mental health pod will have group therapy sessions in the communal area of the pod. Group therapy sessions for the mentally ill are not currently available, Willits said.

Blackboards with the day’s schedule will be mounted; mentally ill inmates generally are helped with visual aids and details that provide structure, she said.

Because some of the inmates could have suicidal tendencies, fencing will be installed to keep someone from jumping off the second floor of the pod, Willits said.

In May, Sheriff Jeff Easter told county commissioners that having a special area to manage mentally ill inmates could limit the risk of lawsuits. In federal court, there has been ongoing litigation against the county over the treatment of mentally ill inmates. Easter also told the commissioners that some mentally ill inmates can be difficult to manage in the general jail population.

“Close and continual monitoring is currently not available,” Easter’s written presentation said.

He noted that 40 percent of inmates sampled at the jail had had previous treatment for mental illnesses.

The current annual cost for operating the mental health pod is $735,212, Willits said.

A big part of the cost is having six additional deputy positions. There also will be more funding for increased mental health staffing, she said.

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