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Mental health treatment for inmates getting closer look

Macon Telegraph - 3/24/2017

March 24--The Bibb County jail has 966 beds and fills between 764 and 803 of them daily. On any given day, about a quarter of the inmates there have a mental illness of some kind, officials estimate.

Mental illness affects a person in many ways, and it can be a factor in repeat offenses, substance abuse problems and more. Better assessments and services are needed for inmates, and federal grant funding will allow local agencies to study how to meet those needs, said Shaina Bester, grant administrator for the Bibb County Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's office and Macon Public Defender's Office have received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Middle Georgia State University'sCenter for Applied Research and Education is a partner for the project and will receive $70,000 of those funds for data evaluation, said Michael Gibbons, the center's director.

"Mental health in America's jails and prisons is a problem everywhere, and that's the point of the grant," Gibbons said. "We don't have a very extensive public mental health system."

The center will moderate monthly meetings for those involved, and faculty members and several students will be on the research team. They will compile a benchmark report detailing the severity of the mental health problem in the Bibb County jail and tools already in place. The local agencies will use that information to decide which other interventions to try. Later, the center can remeasure data to see if there's improvement.

Right now, inmates get mental and physical health checkups right after booking so they can be connected with treatment while in jail, Bester said. Administrators want to expand the assessments so they can classify if someone is low, medium or high risk and determine what programs would be most beneficial.

This has been a challenge since the jail has such a fluid population. The two-year grant, which started Oct. 1, will help the sheriff's office figure out how to offer assessments to all the inmates and map out individual treatment stages. Inmates with mental illness will be placed in group therapy sessions with counselors, and the Public Defender's Office will work to reduce their jail sentences.

The grant will also focus on discharge planning and follow-up services after people are released from jail, Bester said. Better local supervision programs are needed so inmates can readjust to living in the community. Employees at the jail, sheriff's office and judicial system will receive training on how to identify clients with mental illness and communicate with them.

The grant is in the planning phase now, and organizers must submit their report to the Department of Justice by Sept. 30, 2018. Then, they will apply for the implementation phase to receive funding for three additional years.

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea


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