Pitkin County Jail gets grant to provide inmates with mental health, substance abuse services
November 30, 2015
During every month for the past year, at least one inmate from the Pitkin County Jail has been sent to the state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo to determine if he or she is competent to stand trial.
Last fall alone, judges in the area ordered six people for mental-competency evaluations, said Don Bird, Pitkin County Jail administrator.
"Almost everybody that comes in here has come kind of behavioral-health issue," Bird said. "It's a problem in every jail and every community in America."
And dealing with those inmates is not easy. The deputies who work at the jail are not specially trained therapists or psychiatrists, and yet they must take care of them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
"It's really frustrating for my staff," Bird said.
But it may be about to get a little easier.
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A $30,000 state grant — partially funded by recreational marijuana taxes — will soon pay for a trained clinician and a case manager to spend 12 hours a week at the jail providing substance-abuse and mental-health counseling to inmates who need it.
"This is, I think, a really good thing for the county and for the community," said Tony Passariello, program director for the Aspen office of Mind Springs Health. "It's a lot of time for a jail our size."
Mind Springs will administer the grant for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office and will provide the case manager, who already works in the jail, and the clinician. Together, they will screen and identify inmates who qualify for the program, Passariello said.
First and foremost, an inmate must have a substance-abuse problem to qualify to be treated under the grant. He or she also must be a legal resident of the U.S., Bird said. Beyond that, the grant provides flexibility to treat what mental-health professionals call "co-occurring mental-health diagnoses," or underlying mental disorders.
Mind Springs is in the process of setting up a "life skills" group-therapy session to provide guidance on everything from how to follow a healthy diet to renewing a driver's license to proper hygiene, Bird said. But if an inmate needs individual mental-health counseling, the clinician can provide that, too, Passariello said.
Bird budgeted $9,000 in 2015 to pay for mental-health treatment for inmates in the county jail, which often goes toward psychotropic medications, he said. That's because Medicare and Medicaid won't pay for those services for people who are incarcerated.
"Fortunately, this county has (a jail) administrator who cares," Passariello said.
About 80 percent of inmates at the jail at any given time have a substance-abuse problem, while about 25 percent have mental-health issues, Bird said.
"This (grant) has to do with the realization in Colorado that state resources to deal with mentally ill people are really lacking," Bird said. "It's inexcusable. It's a realization that's way past due."
The Jail Based Behavioral Services Grant began about five years ago and initially included 24 counties, said Jagruti Shah, manager of offender mental-health programs for the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. Including Pitkin County, the number is now up to 44 counties with 20 more to go, she said. In addition to recreational marijuana taxes, the $5.1 million grant is paid for by the Correctional Treatment Fund and is renewed on a yearly basis, she said.
"County jails definitely don't have the resources (to treat substance abuse and mental-health issues)," Shah said. "And we're seeing that's where people with these needs are ending up."
One of the major goals of the program is to ensure that once an inmate participant is released from jail, he or she is placed into treatment services in the community, she said. That job will be up to the case manager, who will check in with the former inmate after one, two, six and 12 months and report back to the state on how that person is doing, Shah said.
"We're finding that 30 percent of people (who were counseled in jail) are engaging in treatment after being released from jail," Shah said.
And while they don't have baseline numbers to determine how many people took advantage of post-jail treatment services before the grant began, clinicians say that is a large number, she said.
Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, who has seen her share of people with substance-abuse and mental-health problems, said she thinks the program sounds "pretty cool." She said she likes the fact that it takes advantage of the sobriety people attain while incarcerated and then helps them keep that after they are released.
"I think it's a terrific idea," Fernandez-Ely said. "I really do."
For Bird, the post-jail treatment aspect of the grant is extremely important.
"It's one of the major problems," he said.
The jail staff can stabilize a mentally ill person and even release them with a month's supply of medication, "but really, once they walk out that door, they're basically on their own," Bird said. "If we can have someone looking after them, … it's huge."