County taking time to understand issues before acting on jail expansion, mental health care project

The leaders behind a proposal to expand the Douglas County Jail and construct a mental health crisis intervention center know there’s a need for such an undertaking and that it must be acted on soon. But for now, they just want to understand it.

Since October, and for at least another three months, project officials are touring other treatment facilities, reaching out to potential partner agencies, analyzing data and studying how to best establish a system that would keep some individuals with mental health issues and legal trouble outside of jail.

“This is complex enough and it involves enough partners that inevitably it will go slower than we hope it will, but ironically that’s kind of expected,” County Administrator Craig Weinaug said.

The basic idea officials have in mind — all in an effort to counter rising inmate populations and a demand for better mental health care — is that inmates with mental health issues could be diverted from jail to a crisis intervention center as they await trial. That would serve their needs better and also minimize the expansion of the jail.

It could also help some of those nonviolent inmates avoid prosecution. Officials hope they can establish a system wherein a judge would sentence a nonviolent, mentally ill individual to a treatment program at the intervention center. As long as the individual keeps to the program, charges would not be pursued, similar to drug courts that are common in other jurisdictions.

“We need to find something other than incarceration for some people with mental health issues,” said Dan Rowe, a principal with Treanor Architects, who is leading a team of researchers to determine the scope of the project.

The state of things

No specifics regarding the plan have been set; everything is in flux, including the size of the jail expansion, the amount of beds involved, how large the intervention center would be and what it will cost. Weinaug has offered a ballpark estimate of $20 million to $30 million for it all, but he and others have maintained they truly do not know what the price will be yet.

Officials haven’t determined how to pay for it either, although Weinaug believes the Douglas County Commission will likely establish a public building commission to issue bonds. He expects the price tag to affect the mill levy, or taxes, as well.

What is known is that the 196-bed jail has housed an average daily population of 112 to 185 inmates between 2000 and 2013, according to an assessment study by the county. In the early 1990s, the average daily population hovered between 52 and 72 inmates.

The problem is that inmates are split up into housing classifications, based on their sex and behavior, and some of those spaces are running out of room. The assessment report said there are not enough beds for women, maximum security inmates and special-needs inmates, including those with mental health problems.

Douglas County spent $100,000 to put its inmates in other county jails in 2014 and will spend another $250,000 this year.

On average, about 35 percent of the jail’s population requires mental health services, according to Sharon Zehr, the head of a team of therapists from the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center who work at the Douglas County jail.

If inmates declare a mental health problem during their booking interview, a member of the Bert Nash team will conduct an assessment with them to understand their history and make arrangements to keep their medications available to them, Zehr said.

From there, the therapists are available to meet by request, while the jail also provides several cognitive behavioral support groups. Zehr said those services are helpful but that a “correctional environment” is not the ideal place for them, since inmates are isolated from those who can provide care around the clock.

“Trying to work with someone who has a severe mental illness or psychotic disorder, just locking them in a cell, it tends to make them worse,” she said. “The (correctional) officers are good, but they’re not mental health people; it’s not what they’re there to do.”

No system is in place that can divert an inmate to another facility, Zehr said. Detainees will sometimes be taken to a hospital’s emergency room for mental health problems, but their stay is only temporary. They’ll have to return to the jail eventually.

“Absolutely, a crisis center would be great,” she said.

Gathering information

Douglas County is spending approximately $185,000 for about a dozen people to study the specifics behind the project.

Treanor Architects will study other crisis intervention-like facilities. One researcher, former American Corrections Association president Bobbie Huskey, is poring over jail data to determine how many past inmates could have been diverted to another facility. Another researcher, Margaret Severson, a professor at Kansas University’s School of Social Welfare, is studying how the county can form a successful mental health court.

Rowe, of Treanor Architects, said he wants to have the project’s particulars in order by May, with concept and architectural designs to come soon after. Weinaug said the County Commission will determine how to fund the project over the next six months.

The CEOs for Bert Nash and Lawrence Memorial Hospital both confirmed their interest in the project, although they’ve only engaged in preliminary talks with the county so far.

But before blueprints are drafted, officials hope to hold about a half-dozen town hall meetings to solicit feedback and ideas from the public. The county has already pushed those back — they were originally to begin in late January — and it’s unknown when the first one will be scheduled.

Weinaug said he hopes the public will relate their experiences of when someone’s mental health problems became entangled with the legal system. “What are you doing to address that situation?” is a question he wants to hear.

“What we’re trying to do at the gut level, it’s important for people to hear those stories and understand how real the need is,” he said. “I think these hearings give us a chance to grasp that and see if we’re going in the right direction or not.”