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County to look at mental illness in jails

LaFAYETTE — The Chambers County Commission is stepping up to reduce mental illnesses in jails.

On Monday, the commission passed a resolution to examine more ways to help inmates treat mental health problems while incarcerated. The resolution is called “Stepping Up” and has been passed by several counties in Alabama. The resolution passed by the county Monday was read by Commissioner Debra Riley and  said that rates of serious mental illnesses in jails are three to six times higher than for the general population.

“Almost three-quarters of adults with serious mental illnesses in jails have co-occurring substance use disorders,” Riley said. “Adults with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and upon release are at a higher risk of recidivism than people without these disorders.”

She said the initiative was started by the National Association of Counties in 2015.   

Commissioner Sam Bradford said the county will be applying for a grant through East Alabama Mental Health, and there would be no cost to Chambers County residents. He said East Alabama Mental Health will be managing the grant.

The resolution also read that county jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illnesses that require interventions compared to those without such needs.

Riley said the program asks the court system to take a look at everybody booked into the county jail and ask them a few assessment questions. From there, East Alabama Mental Health will send somebody to the jail to review the assessments to see if those individual people can get better services. Riley said part of those services may be going to Probate Judge Paul Story or Circuit Judge Calvin Milford and asking for an inmate’s release to get them the appropriate help.

Riley said not everybody will qualify for the program, especially if they are a danger to society.

“We are talking about individuals who are safe in the community,” she said.

Riley said the minute somebody is booked at the county jail, they lose their treatment options, even before they are convicted. Even when they are released, she said patients have to restart the process of getting medicine and sometimes spend months with it.

“We are trying to bridge the gap between those times,” Riley said. 

By signing up to participate in the grant, the commission will utilize several resources to work on mental health problems within the jail system.

The county will make up a team from multiple agencies that safely reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. A team will also collect and review numbers to assess needs while identifying individuals entering the jail system with mental illnesses and their recidivism risk. The team will use that information to guide decision making with the jail system.

The county will also be tasked with examining treatment options and determining what programs and services are available to those in the county with mental illnesses while determining barriers on getting such treatment.

While making success on all these tasks, the county will also need to create a process to track the progress made by using data and report on successes.

Riley said she and a few individuals will head to Cherokee County to see how the program works there. She said the county will have a chance to ask several questions about the ins and outs of the program.

Also during Monday’s meeting, County Attorney Skip McCoy gave the commission another update on the Chambers County Jail expansion in LaFayette.

He said contractors are in the process of doing the plumbing on the site and if the weather is good, blocks will be going up soon. McCoy said the contractors are also hopeful they will be able to start pouring the flooring in couple weeks.

“It is possible that in the next month, there will be some real movement,” he said.

The jail is being expanded to house more inmates, with a focus on more female inmates. Currently, the jail houses 136 inmates with only 16 spaces for females. The new jail space is meant to accommodate more than 200 inmates.

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