Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Some Reflections on Tuesday’s Forum (updated and revised)

WHO: Some fifty concerned citizens, including attorneys, social workers and mental health professionals and three panelists: Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, Sarah Albrecht, licensed professional counselor at the Community Services Board and David Rawls, psychologist at Western State's 45-bed forensic unit (serving persons convicted of some crime).

WHAT: A forum on the treatment of mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates at our local jail.

WHEN: Tuesday, March 6, from 12-1:30 pm.

WHERE: Massanutten Regional Library meeting room.

WHY: To consider humane alternatives to the use of the restraint chair or the padded isolation cell for suicidally depressed inmates (see blog on this topic), including the use of volunteer mental health professionals to be available to be with such persons on a rotating, round the clock basis if necessary.

Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson agreed that the restraint chair should be used only in cases where an inmate is out of control and in danger of harming him or herself or others, and that being confined to the padded cell (where suicidally depressed inmates are stripped of their clothing and given only a paper gown to wear, and are without any reading material, bed, mattress or blanket, and with a hole in the floor for a toilet) should only be an option of last resort. However, he stressed that jail security and the protection of inmates is his first priority, along with the need to follow strict Commonwealth of Virginia guidelines and to avoid the risk of liability if any volunteers assisting such individuals were injured.

Sarah Albrecht, LPC, reported that the CSB is able to provide the equivalent of about 1.5 mental health counselors or psychiatric nurses (a full time equivalent number that was only her estimate, so it could be higher) for an overcrowded facility which houses 345 inmates who have little or no outside human contact or access to any other mental health resources. This is no fault of the CSB, of course, which also offers several educational groups led by the five part time CSB persons who make up that 1.5 or more number (including the psychiatric nurse practitioner who oversees the use of meds) but little counseling is offered.

Psychologist David Rawls reported that at Western State padded cells are no longer used for the patients from other jails and prisons housed there, but suicidal inmates are given one-on-one oversight, and the restraint chair is used only when there is an incorrigible patient. He also reported the use of trained peer support persons assigned to suicidal inmates in some prisons, but offered no details.

In summary, given the perceived risks, I left the meeting with little hope for any significant change in the near future in how our local jail deals with mentally ill inmates. However, Sheriff Hutcheson did say he is always open to at least meeting with any concerned citizens to hear their concerns, and stated that more training of jail personnel is a priority, with one deputy already being specifically assigned and trained to work at coordinating services to inmates with mental health needs.

I remain interested in generating a list of people who would be willing to further investigate workable and humane options that would not strain already stretched personnel and resources at the jail. My goal would be to both offer support to our new sheriff and promote better services to those citizens to our community who are behind bars.

Meanwhile, it would be interesting to know how many of our local inmates are actually being confined because they are guilty of violent crimes, and what percentage are in fact being detained for no crimes at all, but for technical parole violations, failure to pay child support, etc. I would also like actual statistics on the number of unarmed persons holding Sunday services or offering classes at the jail who have ever been threatened or harmed.

Your ideas are welcome, and please let me know if you are interested in being a part of further conversations with the Sheriff on this and other jail related concerns.

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