Inmates’ mental health a concern

By Tim Weideman

One specific issue keeps Capt. Hank Nelson up at night.

The commander of the Riley County Jail can’t get worries about mental health care for inmates out of his mind.

“It bothers me a lot,” Nelson said Wednesday in an interview at the Riley County Law Center. “I take it very seriously.”

Part of the reason mental health weighs so heavily on Nelson’s mind is because he faces the problem every day.

At the same time, Riley County Police Department Director Brad Schoen wonders if there aren’t ways to keep some of these troubled inmates from ever being locked up at all.

The Riley County Jail can house up to 147 inmates. Recently, the daily population has averaged in the 60s, but that’s a low point in the last few years.

Of the jail’s inmates during the last quarter, Nelson said about 16 percent needed psychotropic medications to manage mental illness symptoms.

In the past, that figure has been as high as 25 percent.

Inmates requiring care for mental illnesses cost the jail far more than the estimated $65 per day it costs to house an inmate without those needs. But if medications and care are what it takes, then those who need them will get it, Nelson said.

“The bottom line down there (in the jail) is the corrections officers are here to serve that group of citizens,” he said. “And they’re held to a higher standard to treat them correctly.”

Many times, the inmates requiring care ended up in prison because they weren’t able to gain access to medications or services to help them with their conditions.

“The problem is that by the time they get to us, it’s too late,” Schoen said – noting that RCPD patrol officers frequently encounter people with mental illnesses..

“A lot of times, these individuals will end up in conflicts of one sort or another,” he said.

“And at some point in time, by virtue of their inability to manage whatever their issue is, they engage in criminal behavior.”

That behavior might never have happened, Schoen said, had the people in those situations been able to find the care they needed.

“They’ve already been failed,” he said. “By the time the cops show up, the failure has already occurred.”

But the officers responding can’t simply refuse to handle the situation. Often, that means somebody’s going to jail.

“If the only option left is to arrest them and bring them to jail, then they’ve now been failed again,” Schoen said.

From Schoen’s perspective, the failures for Kansas inmates needing mental health care began in Topeka.

Over the years, the state legislature has continued to cut funds to mental health care service providers.

According to a 2011 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Kansas cut 12.4 percent of its general fund mental health budget from fiscal years 2009 through 2012.

That cut ranked the ninth-most in the country.

“The state bailed out of it because it costs money,” Schoen said in regard to mental health care.

The state does provide funds to community-based health care services, such as Pawnee Mental Health Services – but even those funds, Schoen said, are always at risk for further cuts.

Pawnee works closely with the jail to help provide services for inmates who need it. One of those services is screening for inmates who may be a danger to themselves or others.

If Pawnee deems the inmate is a danger, then it can help get that person to Osawatomie State Hospital – one of two state hospitals remaining that can admit and treat inmates with mental illnesses.

“I can’t speak enough about our relationship with Pawnee Mental Health and their service that they provide us and, actually, the inmate,” Nelson said. “They get it.”

Other groups in the community, such as the mental health task force – which is comprised of local government officials – are aware of the jail’s concerns.

Schoen said all of these groups are interested. To some degree, though, they believe it makes sense for the RCPD to play a role in getting people care for mental illnesses.

“I struggle between recognizing the need for the role, and the inability to step to the forefront and say, ‘We will do that,’ ” Schoen said. “Like everybody else, we have limited resources, as well.”

Interested community groups may need to come up with other solutions, Schoen said, to help those with mental illnesses get care before they end up in the jail.

“The question, I think, if we’re going to do anything, is going to boil down to this: Does local government want to address the issue, or not, and local government answers to the taxpayers,” he said.

“So really, do local citizens have enough concerns about this issue that they would be willing to do something about it? Because it’s going to cost money to solve.”

Until better solutions are created, the staff at the Riley County Jail will continue to do what it can.

“Those marginalized groups, they deserve appropriate treatment,” Nelson said. “So we do our best.”

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