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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

We Can Afford Humane Mental Health Treatment For Local Inmates

Should suicidally depressed persons be put in restraint chairs?
I've just submitted the following to the DNR as an edited version of an earlier blog. Please read the last paragraph.

Here's question for local legislators: Why should the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail have the lowest budget for mental health services of any facility in the area?

According to information obtained from the RHRJ, suicidally depressed inmates were confined to restraint chairs a total of 22 times during the first six months of this year. The minimum amount of time spent in such restraint, with belts and cuffs immobilizing the inmate's legs, arms, and torso, was two hours, with 28 hours being the longest.

During the same period, the jail’s segregated padded cell was used 14 times for inmates at risk for suicide. RHRJ's "rubber room", the only one of its kind used by any area jail I know of, has no bed or other furnishings, and no mattress, blanket, reading material or eating utensils. A grate in the floor serves as a commode, and the inmate has only a suicide-proof smock for warmth. He or she has no human contact except for regular suicide checks, and is offered no counseling whatever.

During this period 12 inmates were assigned to a regular segregated cell while on suicide watch. Here an inmate is allowed a blanket and a few personal items, similar to the procedure followed by most jails for suicidal inmates.

Incarceration itself, especially in crowded cells with some inmates sleeping on the floor, is extremely stressful, and it’s hard to imagine the trauma the above forms of confinement create for clinically depressed, paranoid and/or suicidal inmates. Hence the efforts of some of us to work with Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson at our local jail, along  with Mr. Lacy Whitmore of the Community Services Board, to seek ways of improving mental health services for local inmates.

This effort includes appealing to members of the City Council and Board of Supervisors for more funds for mental health services as well as offering volunteer local mental health professionals and supervised interns to help as needed. These carefully vetted individuals could work with the CSB and jail personnel to provide therapeutic support for inmates in a time of crisis.

I know it must be challenging for the sheriff and his overworked staff to provide for the needs of some 400 inmates. They have to deal with situations the best way they can with their limited budgets and resources.

But why should our relatively well-to-do community, blessed with a near surplus of mental health professionals, be limited to an annual budget of under $18,000 to provide psychological treatment and care for local inmates? This expenditure, through a contract RHRJ has with our local CSB, is by far the most meager per inmate of any facility in the region, and covers only about an hour of mental health screening and three hours of medication management per week, the latter provided by a trained nurse practitioner.

By comparison, the new Rappahannock-Warren-Shenandoah Regional Jail, with a capacity of 375 when filled, employs a full time mental health worker, and the Winchester Regional Jail, with 600 inmates, has two full time counselors.

The Arlington County Jail, currently housing just over 500, employs five full time professional counselors and a full time psychologist, partly funded with grant money. By last report, Arlington County, with this comprehensive approach, is actually seeing its jail population decline.

Our area boasts of having the lowest tax rate of any in Virginia except for tourist rich Williamsburg, but we are far, far from being the poorest locality in the Commonwealth.

Not only can we afford to offer more decent mental health services here, but given the wealth of human and other resources in our community, we could develop an enviable criminal justice system that could become a model for Virginia and the nation. We could invest more in education, prevention, treatment, diversion and restorative justice programs that help keep people out of the correctional system and less in building ever more expensive jail facilities.
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