'Not jail, almost:' Mental health care offered to Mecklenburg inmates in new jail unit
Charlotte Observer - 8/16/2019
Aug. 16--CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Years ago, when Charles Pearson was supervising inmates as a young jail officer in Virginia, he says he became close with one man who lived in the jail unit where he worked.
The man was struggling with mental illness, said Pearson, who's now a sergeant with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.
"The jail that I worked at at the time didn't know how to deal with it," he said. "I didn't know how to deal with it."
The man died by suicide, and Pearson took it hard. He felt like he'd done everything he could do to help given the resources available at that time, but he knew he wanted to make sure more mental health assistance was available in jails in the future.
Pearson is part of the namesake of the Mecklenburg County Jail's new Behavioral Health Unit on East Fourth Street, which had its grand opening Thursday morning.
The space, which is accented with calming colors and houses half as many inmates as a typical unit, is named the "McP" unit, after Pearson and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden.
"(We're doing) anything we can (do to) try to make the setting not jail, almost," Pearson said.
The unit has room for 28 inmates, who moved in Wednesday night, Pearson said. He hopes the program will grow from there.
The jail had a spike in deaths -- including three suicides -- in 2018, before McFadden took office. Since he became sheriff, one inmate died in an apparent overdose.
Some mental health resources, like medication management, are available to the general population of inmates, but jail officials said this is the first time the jail has had a dedicated residential unit for mental health treatment.
The jail is working with Wellpath, a company that provides healthcare in jails, prisons and residential treatment facilities, to have a mental health caregiver based in the new unit, with an office just a few yards from the inmates' cells.
Jail officials studied what's been done in other cities, including Nashville and Houston, as they developed the Mecklenburg program, Pearson said.
Inmates are offered the chance to join the program after they're assessed by a mental health team, Pearson said.
If they agree, they join a structured program that offers cognitive behavior therapy, anger management and meditation, with the goal of returning inmates to the general population with tools to manage mental well-being, Pearson said.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-NC, attended the grand opening and said she hopes the new unit's effects will go beyond the jail's walls.
"You've got to make sure that when these men and women go back out in the community, that they are fully prepared to deal with the environment, (with) the world," she said.
The new unit is one of several programs introduced by McFadden, who was sworn in as sheriff in December. The jail has held two career fairs to help inmates find post-incarceration jobs and opened a barber school for inmates under 18.
Efforts to obtain comment from the sheriff's office about the cost of the new unit and the contract with Wellpath were unsuccessful by 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
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