Opinion: Why I support the proposal for jail, crisis center

I began my career standing at the bars of the Des Moines City Jail interviewing people to see if they qualified for release on their own recognizance or release with treatment services. Since then, I have visited jails and prisons in multiple states. I know we have a major problem with mass incarceration in our country. If you have a serious mental illness in America, you are 10 times more likely to be in prison or jail than in a hospital.

How can I support expanding the Douglas County Jail? As part of a group studying the issues for the past several years at the request of the County Commission, we toured a crisis facility in San Antonio. That program is justifiably proud of its programs and the lives and money it has saved. It allowed Bexar County to set aside plans to expand its jail. Some supporters of the proposed crisis center have suggested that would be true here. But we toured the jail in San Antonio and saw the three areas where men with mental illnesses were housed. All of us were appalled by what we saw. Bexar County needs to spend money on jail facilities and programs for persons who have mental illnesses. Completely eliminating the criminalization of mental illness will still leave people incarcerated who have a mental illness. Every time the jail study group visited another facility, we felt there must be a better, more humane and effective way to treat those individuals.

And we found it. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., was by far the most therapeutic environment we visited. Everyone housed there is under either criminal or civil commitment, but once we cleared security we were all struck by the availability of natural light and connection to the outdoors. That therapeutic environment is reflected in the way people are treated.

I had a coworker in Iowa — a friend — hang herself in her cell following an arrest. I know the importance of monitoring people at risk in jail. In the Douglas County jail, the area set up to monitor those at risk including those with mental illness is maximum security. In there, for your own safety, you have to be treated as though you are a maximum security inmate. Included in the proposed jail remodeling are 28 new beds for a specialty unit for persons with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities or otherwise at risk such as persons who are transgender.

The existing jail was designed for women to be 10 percent of the total population. Currently, females are 25 percent. The jail has one 28-bed unit for women. Even if we reduce the number of women incarcerated so that it never exceeds 28, two women codefendants or one victim and one suspect, cannot be housed in the same unit. Do we empty a men’s unit or pay for inmates to be housed out of county? For me, the impact of sending people to other jails is not just financial. The greatest impact is those individuals do not have access to our nationally recognized re-entry programs and lose the benefit of being in Douglas County where they have access to family supports and work release programs.

The Douglas County Jail is visited by people across the country to study our successful re-entry programs. But it was designed and built before those innovative programs began nine years ago. The proposed renovation would give the re-entry and work release programs the space they desperately need to continue to thrive, reduce recidivism and change lives.

Some people believe it would be best for the Bert Nash Center if a proposed and much-needed 24/7 crisis intervention facility was not linked with a jail remodeling project. They may be right. I very much hope not. Because our mission is to respond to needs, restore lives and build a healthy community for the people of Douglas County – even those behind bars.

These are complex problems and there are people of goodwill on both sides. Yes, the jail project is an expansion, but it’s an expansion of mental health services for inmates, an expansion of services for women inmates, and it’s an expansion of the jail reentry programs. What we’re talking about is providing a jail that functions humanely, with safety and that will provide better services so people won’t return.

Bert Nash is proud to be a part of the efforts to expand mental health services to everyone in our community.

— David Johnson is the CEO of the Bert Nash Community Health Center.