‘Number one issue’ for Texas jails: supporting those with mental illness

Travis County Correctional Facility (Courtesy: TCSO)
Travis County Correctional Facility (Courtesy: TCSO)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sheriffs and jail employees from across Texas met Tuesday in Austin for the annual Texas Jail Association Conference. This year every one of the dozens of jail administrators who spoke with KXAN had a major concern on their minds: how Texas jails will continue to support the mental health needs of their inmates.

“Of course the number one issue we face as county jail operators is mental health and what we do with inmates that face mental health and mental health crises,” explained Sheriff Dennis Wilson of Limestone County, who also serves as President of the Sheriffs Association of Texas.

“For a number of years, our society — for whatever reason — has chosen to put those with mental health issues in and use the criminal justice [system] to hide them. We have finally realized the fact that that’s not the proper way to treat people,” Wilson continued. “There is nothing in the penal code that says a person with mental health issues should be held criminally responsible.”

Wilson explained that law enforcement are often called first when someone goes into a mental health crisis, and if mental health facilities cannot accept those individuals, jails must continue to house them.

He explained that roughly a third of the Texas prison population has mental health issues.

“We get no reimbursement from the state for housing [them] while they await either a court disposition or some type of services from the state,” Wilson said.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez explained that, in most counties, supporting the mental health needs of inmates is one of their greatest expenditures.

“A third of my [jail] population is mentally ill, so I could save quite a bit of money if we didn’t have the mentally ill in our department,” Valdez said. “You know you have to take care of the mentally ill, and most of the time you have to have a secure area for the mentally ill so they wont hurt themselves and they wont hurt others. But jail is not the place. Jail is for people we are afraid of, not people we’re upset with. The mentally ill do not belong in the jail, but if no one else will take them, we end up being the rebound for all of those situations where the mentally ill [are] involved.”

Valdez explained that her department has received a grant to try addressing this problem. They hope to start a pilot program in July which would create a separate facility to bring those in custody with mental health issues.

“They will come to be processed, but taken immediately to another facility, they are not going into the jail they will be booked in and processed in just so we have the information,” Valdez said. “Then they will be held in a special area and then they will be taken somewhere else.”

She has mental health support already built into her jail as well as officers who undergo a 40-hour training to support those with mental illness, but many smaller departments cannot afford that level of care.

“With a 48 man jail, I don’t have the funds to hire medical staff for 24 hours,” explained Sheriff Bill Price of Wilbarger County.

Sheriff Ray Scifres of Hockley County explained, “We worry about the unfunded mandates that can be a burden to our rural counties, we don’t have access to the same resources as urban counties.”

Larger metropolitan counties are also feeling overwhelmed. Major Shane Poole of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office said that supporting mental health needs in the jail is “right near the top” of the TCSO priorities list.

He explained that inmates with mental health issues awaiting criminal proceedings may stay in a county jail for six months to a year while they wait for a bed in a treatment facility.

“We’re basically looking to the state government and federal government to work out issues with funding,” Poole said. “It’s far beyond the reach of a majority of county jails.”

“There’s nothing in this [Texas legislative] session or the last session that’s gonna be the be-all end-all solution to the problem” Poole continued. “It’s gonna be ongoing, it’s gonna be a collaborative effort between the cities, counties, and the state to deal with this as we go forward, so I think there’s still a lot more work to be done.”

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