News Article Details

Benton County wants $5M jail unit for mentally ill inmates

Tri-City Herald - 4/2/2017

April 02--A woman is booked into the Benton County jail late on a weekend.

The next morning, she has a seizure and is taken to a hospital. She doesn't talk at first, but eventually admits she ingested "a bunch of dope" before her arrest.

A doctor has bad news: The mass is too far down to pump out and it may be too large to pass naturally. The doctor advises surgery.

The original infraction was minor, and jail officials hasten to release the woman so she can pursue treatment. Two hours later, she leaves the hospital, untreated, her fate unknown.

Each new jail arrival is different, but staff confront the same questions each time someone appears at the intake door. Is the person healthy enough to house in the general population? Sick enough to need medical attention? Distraught enough to need monitoring? Mentally ill enough to need extra support?

Since 2012, the answer to the last question increasingly is "yes."

"It's a nightmare," said Jerry Hatcher, Benton County's interim sheriff. "There are crises like that all the time."

Benton County has adapted several cells in the booking area to accommodate inmates with mental illness. One is padded and another has a window that lets corrections officers to monitor the inmate. It's a partial solution.

Now, the county wants to build a $5 million, 24-bed unit to house mentally ill inmates near the booking area to replace its makeshift cells.

"It's just not a therapeutic environment," Hatcher said.

The county commissioners have authorized about $400,000 to date to pay for designs, and have said the facility is a much-needed addition.

They haven't given their final approval, pending research into possible grants to help pay for the construction cost.

"We are committed to not only develop, but create the best mental health system that we can in the incarceration system," said Commissioner Shon Small.

If built, the mental health unit would be the latest addition to a growing list of tools the county is using to get its arms around its mental health challenge, and to comply with the state's move to integrate mental health and physical health services in 2020.

Treat people in community, not jail

Outside of the jail, at least two groups are discussing how to create a community-based center to serve people before they commit crimes and land in the jail.

Former Benton County Commissioner Claude Oliver is advocating for a one-stop mental health center developed in partnership with a private developer.

In another initiative, commissioners from both counties have discussed using vacant space at the former Kennewick General Hospital as a mental health center. The most recent gathering was Thursday.

Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin disclosed the KGH plan this week, saying the three area hospitals could operate it as a nonprofit serving people who are too disruptive for emergency rooms, but don't belong in jail. Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller is interested in the concept.

The approaches are different, but the aims are the same: Treat people with mental illness in the community, not in jail.

But even if a community-based system gets off the ground, Hatcher points out the jail needs an appropriate space for people with mental health issues who commit serious crimes.

"The actual criminals need to come to jail," he said.

At any given time, the Benton County Jail houses more than 500 inmates, a mix of local arrestees and inmates housed under contract with the state and federal governments. Of those, about 20 will have significant mental health issues.

Sometimes it's obvious at booking or the inmate is known to jail staff. Sometimes, issues emerge as the stress of incarceration mounts.

"Our facility is just not designed for the mental health people," Hatcher said.

A mental health crisis

The increase in mental health cases began around 2012.

While the reason isn't clear, even to law enforcement, the crisis peaked in Benton County a year ago when Marc Moreno, 18, of Pasco, died in the Benton County jail after being arrested when he became disruptive at a mental health service.

His death was ruled a drug-related accident despite active monitoring by deputies. Former Sheriff Steve Keane, who retired April 1, said at the time that the mentally ill young man should not have been in jail in the first place.

Moreno's family is seeking $5 million in a wrongful death suit and the case has yielded exhaustive investigative reports.

As designed, the proposed new mental health unit would give staff a clear view of all inmates and a calming environment. The average jail stay in Benton County is about 14 days, but it can take that long for unstable inmates to be readied enough to appear in court.

As the county's elected leaders contemplate funding and if 24 beds is the right size, Hatcher is impatient to break ground.

"Tomorrow would be great for me," he said.

When the jail identifies an inmate who has mental health issues, that person is referred to an interdisciplinary team of case workers, chaplains, psychologists and others. The team meets at the jail every Thursday to review the status of each person. The model has drawn attention from around the state.

A year ago this month, the county instituted a mental health court to provide alternatives to incarceration for defendants who are mentally ill. The court can serve up to 42 defendants and has a waiting list.

It is funded by the county's public safety tax, the 0.3 percent sales tax approved by voters in 2014. The tax applies to most though not all retail sales in the county.

Hatcher calls the mental health court a double-edged blessing. It provides a needed service to participants, but it only accepts people who agree to follow its rules and are good candidates to comply with their sentences.

Inmates who've lost touch with reality or are unable to care for themselves don't meet the criteria.

"Your jails are left with the sickest of the sick," Hatcher said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell


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