COLUMBIA CITY — “A lot of the folks in county jails in Indiana have no business being in a jail cell.”
Prosecutor D.J. Sigler didn’t make that statement in regards to jail inmates being innocent, rather, in need of mental health treatment that county jails cannot provide.
When the state closed most of its mental health facilities in an effort to save money, it left county jails attempting to manage inmates, who may be better served as mental health patients.
“Technically, they committed the crimes, but they have issues that should put them somewhere other than a jail cell,” Sigler says.
Mental health issues in the jail have “skyrocketed” according to Sheriff Marc Gatton, putting further strain on confinement officers.
“Easily, 50 percent of our inmates are being seen or treated for a mental issue,” Jail Commander Sean Martin said. “With the lack of mental health hospitals, we can’t do anything.”
The Sheriff’s Department wants the ability to take inmates to a facility where they can receive the help they need and potentially thwart re-offending, but options are limited.
“If they don’t have insurance, many places won’t take them. Where do they end up? In our jail,” Gatton said.
“I know they would benefit from it and I can’t get if for them,” Martin said.
The jail has a full-time nurse, who also tends to medical needs of all inmates. It also has a mental health worker who comes twice a week, for up to six hours at a time, to do evaluations on inmates — but not long enough to assist in the day-to-day mental health needs of inmates.
Regardless, long-term needs are not being met.
“We can help control their mental state while they’re in here, but we see this over and over — they get out, quit their medication, self-medicate with drugs and end up back in here,” Gatton said. Community Corrections offers drug and alcohol programs, which have been effective for many who utilize them. Others need more in-depth assistance that is beyond the county’s abilities.
Superior Court Judge Doug Fahl suggests the state offer regional mental health facilities that could be shared by several counties. A mental health facility could allow inmates to get the help they need, rather than being mixed in with other inmates at the county jails.
“Then we could get them out of the local jail where they’re just sitting, getting worse,” Fahl said. “Our jail doesn’t have a mental health wing or a psychiatrist on staff. Substance abuse coincides with other mental health issues. It’s difficult as a judge to determine the best route.”
Overall, Fahl puts a focus on the safety of the community.
“If we don’t house them in the jail, the general public could be at risk,” Fahl said. “If they’re confined, they can’t be out hurting the general public.”