Hennepin County Jail looking closer at inmate mental health

- Is the Hennepin County Jail more of an “asylum”? That’s what the National Sheriff’s Association is saying about all jails in the United States. And on Tuesday, to argue the point, Sheriff Rich Stanek opened his jail to news cameras — noting that a third of his inmates suffer mental illness.

The issue of mental illness is apparent from the moment a person steps into the jail for booking. A medical screening form asks, “have you ever been treated for a nervous or mental problem?” If yes, the inmate is sent to a nurse. The issue comes up again when the inmate’s danger level is classified; a deputy asks a series of 43 questions that also seek mental health information.

“We’re able to manage their behavior, but we don’t treat the underlying issues,” Sheriff Stanek said. “Often those inmates with mental illness, their condition is exacerbated when confined in a facility.”

A walk by one of the prescription drug storage units led a deputy to remark that 219 of the 758 inmates in the jail at that moment were receiving prescription drugs that treat mental illness — nearly 30-percent.

After applying for grants, Hennepin County is hoping to make some changes by the end of the year:

• Hennepin County Medical Center Nurses — rather than deputies — asking the intake and classification questions to better identify mental illness
• A mental health caseload system
• Video visitation for inmates in segregation
• Therapeutic programming

The issue of mental illness in jails was a major topic of conversation at the National Sheriff’s Association Conference in Minneapolis this week.

“What you’re seeing here is a microcosm of what’s happening across the country, whether it’s a small jail, a medium jail, or a large jail,” said Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriff’s Association. “I would say it’s unfair to put people in jail who need mental healthcare.”

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