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PSCO addressing mental health problems in jail

Tri-Valley Dispatch - 9/21/2017

FLORENCE - For many people, their closest encounter with the issue of mental illness is through popular movies like "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest."

But for others, dealing with mental illness comes with their job.

For law enforcement throughout Pinal County, mental illness is an issue they often encounter on the streets. Yet getting those struggling with mental health issues the help they need is far from easy.

"It's sad, but it's almost illegal to be crazy," said Steven Grabowski, a licensed practical nurse who works for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office. "So in the community what we do with them, (when) you see the guy in the street talking to God, we call law enforcement. They come, they have no place to bring them (so) they get arrested."

Behind the walls of the Pinal County jail, addressing the issue of mental illness has the capacity to change lives.

In August, the detention center transformed one wing of its facility into a mental health housing pod, designed to help slowly reintegrate inmates struggling with mental illness back into the general population.

A product of teamwork between PCSO's medical team and the security team, the 14-cell, 28-bed unit houses inmates who are partially segregated from the rest of the jail's population.

Officials inside the jail work to determine, based on each inmate's security status and the severity of the condition, how many hours a day they can spend in general population.

According to PCSO Capt. Christina VanGorden, the hope is that the facility will eventually help those inmates get back on their feet and reintegrate back into society.

PSCO's mental health team, led by psychiatrist Dr. Jack Potts, meets regularly with inmates inside the pod to determine the cause behind their behavioral problems.

Some of the issues are related to chemical dependency, said Grabowski, with a portion of the jail's population suffering from addiction to drugs like methamphetamine.

With a national opioid crisis in full swing, mental health is becoming a top priority for law enforcement across the country.

"I think substance abuse is a way to mask some of the mental health issues," said Sheriff Mark Lamb. "People are trying to drown the pain that they're feeling - the despair, those types of things that come along with some of the mental health issues."

Among the jail's mentally ill population, Grabowski estimates that about 50 percent also suffer from a dependency on drugs.

The unit, VanGorden noted, is specifically designed to address behavioral issues that are more "interpersonal."

"We've been training our staff intensely on mental health needs over these last two years," she said.

As behavioral problems are addressed, through medication and therapy, inmates are eligible to spend more time among the rest of the jail's general population, starting with half an hour and going up to anywhere between two and four hours at a time.

While out in the jail's general population, those inmates are encouraged to play games and interact with staff and other inmates.

Prior to the development of the mental health wing, inmates dealing with these psychological problems were often segregated from the rest of the jail's population all the time.

Among the top reasons for doing so: the victimization of those that are mentally unstable.

Currently, the jail houses 22 inmates who are classified as severely mentally ill, or SMI. The trend that officers began to notice is that SMI inmates segregated from the rest of the population for long periods of time would actually "degenerate," said VanGorden.

The new system eliminates some of the key security risks and also promotes better mental health overall.

In an effort to completely rehabilitate SMIs, the program also seeks to help them learn to be more self-sufficient through teaching personal hygiene and other productive habits, like looking after their sleeping area.

"(They'll) be doing those things that they'll be doing in other housing units as part of general population to help them acclimate better," said Sgt. Stephanie Swafford.

So far, the new process has already yielded better results. According to Swafford, multiple SMIs have been successfully reintegrated into the general population and have not returned to the segregation unit since the program started.

Yet the rehabilitation process is far from over after inmates are released. Working together with entities like Cenpatico, United Way and Pinal County Superior Court, the county tries to find resources within the community where those recently released can still find the treatment that they need.

One of the key ways PCSO is trying to ensure that inmates get the help they need beyond the jail is by encouraging the establishment of more local halfway houses.

By putting SMIs in contact with other organizations outside of the jail, the hope is that the resources will help lower their odds of returning to jail.

"Not so many people are slipping through the cracks anymore," said Swafford.

For the Sheriff's Office, another priority is taking a proactive approach - finding new ways and resources to address mental health incidents deputies encounter on the streets that are more effective than taking the individual to jail.

That includes the Mental Health Task force, a new program PCSO is currently implementing that has deputies working together with crisis workers to address service calls that may involve mental illness.

"Unfortunately, in this country law enforcement has borne the brunt of a lot of the mental health issues," said Lamb. "When we go to resolve a call, we have to deal with that call. And it doesn't mean that jail is the right place for that person, but we're limited on where we can take some of these people."

 
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